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25 years of taking off

By Staff | May 17, 2008

Much like the landscape of Southwest Florida, the region’s airport has changed greatly since the first commercial flight touched down 25 years ago at what was then a mere regional terminal.

What is now Southwest Florida International Airport has expanded from serving the needs of area residents to becoming a world wide hub for international travel. It has solidified the region as a premier destination for tourists and nature enthusiasts alike by providing easy access. And it could very well be instrumental in helping to create new industry in a real estate starved economy.

Without the proper amount of land these goals might have never been met, let alone approached. Lee County Port Authority Executive Director Robert Ball credits county commissioners back then for having the vision, and courage, to commit to the airport’s success by acquiring enough land so expansion would not be an issue.

“There was tremendous insight and courage by the county commissioners in the late 70s and 80s to recognize Page Field had outserved its usefulness,” Ball said, adding that, at the time, the new airport project was less than favorable to many.

“It was called the White Elephant,” Ball continued. “But the commissioners acquired enough land to allow for the new airport’s expansion, and to allow for an environmental protected area.”

The airport has an annual impact of $3.6 billion on the local economy, serving 300 flights a day from around the world. 64,500 regional jobs are directly or indirectly tied to the airport, a figure that’s not surprising considering that more than 1,000,000 people passed through airport in March of this year. That’s the same number that passed through during the airport’s first full year of operation in 1984.

To handle the increasing traffic of the last 2-1/2 decades, a new terminal was opened in 2005. Clocking in as the largest public works project in the history of Lee County, the new terminal was designed in anticipation of future growth, with additional gates and aircraft ramps built into existing plans. A “parallel runway project” is also being eyed for completion eight to 10 years down the road.

“You can see how large the region can grow and how the airport can keep pace with it,” said Vicki Moreland, spokesperson for the Port Authority. “We have the land, the infrastructure, we have it all. We can keep up with existing growth.”

Part of the Port Authority’s long-term vision for the airport includes luring new industries. According to Moreland, bio-medical and high-tech businesses are ideal candidates for the county’s eco-friendly driven initiatives. Plans already are in motion to construct The Skyplex Commercial Park, and the so-called “Maddon Project”— the brainchild of a London based group of companies — on airport property.

“These are the kinds of jobs what will blend really well in Southwest Florida, exactly the kind of thing we need” Moreland said.

“Having a world-class airport is essential to these industries,” she said.

These “non aeronautical” revenues are at the heart of the airport, and possibly the county’s, future.

The new runway and terminal plans will cost upwards of $400 – $500 million to construct.

The Port Authority does not use ad valorem taxation. Federal grant programs will provide some of the funding but, without those alternate sources of revenue, the Port Authority’s grand plans for the future might not be so bright.

“How do you come up with the funding for that?” Ball asked. “In order to plan for and participate in that funding, we need to strive on non aeronautical development.”

Here in the Cape, the airport has had a definite impact on population. Mayor Eric Feichthaler said that even 20 years ago visitors were becoming residents after using the airport as a gateway to Southwest Florida.

“Once people visit here, they find it a very attractive place to live,” Feichthaler said. “The airport has been a major part of our growth, not only from a tourism standpoint, but as a commercial hub.”

Cape Chamber of Commerce president Mike Quaintance agreed. People are attracted to Sanibel and Captiva islands, falling in love with the region in the process.

“I think its been a real positive impact because that’s how we get a lot of our new residents,” Quaintance said. “It’s really helped to grow our population here in the Cape.”

Both Feichthaler and Quaintance agree that the Port Authority’s plan of using the airport to bring new industry to Southwest Florida is viable. Whether it’s the new industries themselves, or the ancillary jobs created as a result from new industry, it all works toward solidifying the region’s future beyond tourism.

“Whether it’s biotech or other high-paying jobs, I certainly support it because it’s good for the economy. They can take advantage of the talent that’s here,” Feichthaler added. “I’m certainly hoping the area will be known for more than just beaches.”

Part of the airport’s success has no doubt been driven by traffic from the five-county region, not just Lee County alone.

Lee County Commissioner Bob Janes called the airport a “tremendous economic engine” that serves the entire region.

“It impacts Charlotte, Collier, Hendry, and Glades counties as well as Lee,” Janes said.

“We’re predicting 1,000,000 residents in Lee County in 15 years, and the airport plays a critical role in that process.”

There also is little doubt the airport will play a crucial role in the future of the county’s population.

“The problem, from my way of thinking, is how can we keep up with infrastructure needs?” Janes asked. “But, by the time it’s needed, it’ll be there.”

With the future looking bright for the Port Authority and the airport’s growth potential, they have put their own kind of fail-safe plan into action so their growth doesn’t get out of control.

Land use and noise pollution have long been foes of their planning process, but port officials have set aside 7,000 acres as a mitigation park to compensate for the projected development.

“Nobody likes an airport in their backyard, but we have one of the most progressive land use and noise programs in the country,” Ball said. “And while, yes, development around the airport has occurred, we are in Federal Aviation Administration’s criteria, and we go beyond that.”

Whether the airport will help Lee County become a recognized commodity in the bio-medical or high tech industries remains unknown, but there is no indication that the airport has been anything less than a tremendous success.

For Ball, it all comes down to the community embracing the airport and the opportunities it provides.

“I have never seen a community so cognizant, that recognizes the valued importance of the airport. Certainly most of our traffic is tourism, but the next step is regional diversification.” Ball said.