An economic development study focusing on Apalachicola Regional Airport was presented at the April 18 county commission meeting by Beth Kirkland a consultant for BRPH Architects-Engineers, Inc., an international architecture and engineering firm based in Melbourne.

Avcon, the county’s airport engineering consultant arranged for the study which was funded by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT). John Collins, Avcon’s project manager for the airport, received approval to accept the grant and order the study at the Sept. 20 county meeting last year. At that time, commissioners were told the study could be used to leverage funds from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement.

On Tuesday, April 25, Collins said not all of the $120,000 allocated for the study has been used and the work is about 20 percent complete.

Kirkland, who conducted the study, founder and principle of Beth Kirkland Consulting, LLC, an economic and business development consulting and management services firm. She serves as the economic development professional for the Gadsden County Development Council and as interim executive director of the Florida Economic Development Council.

“(Kirkland) maintains a consulting affiliation with BRPH, supporting commercial and industrial business and project development primarily in the aviation/aerospace and defense sectors,” according to her biography on the website for Florida’s Small Business Development Center.

Collins said the study was based on in-person interviews Kirkland conducted with airport staff, airport users and county staff.

On April 18, Kirkland gave a PowerPoint presentation that offered suggestions for boosting economic development at the airport. “Marketing recommendations for positioning the airport as a major economic engine in the county and the region.” Kirkland’s PowerPoint presentation promised.

The plan touched on everything from creating trails for off-road vehicles, to providing sets for motion picture production to skydiving, and incorporated multiple suggestions for using the abandoned Bay City Work Camp adjacent to the airport.

Kirkland said the county is slated to receive $23.6 million in RESTORE money over the next 15 years and can expect to receive $4.2 million next year, her numbers confirmed by RESTORE liaison Alan Pierce. She said airport improvement projects qualify for RESTORE funding under “infrastructure and benefit to the economy; job creation and tourism enhancement.”

 

FDOT dubious about third runway

Kirkland said improvements to lighting and drainage at the airport and a planned commercial access road all increase the value of the airport, the only Panhandle airport with three runways each more than 5,000 feet long. Kirkland suggested that one of the runways could be extended to 8,000 feet in length.

She suggested development of a new airport marketing plan to change perception of the facility.

Ted Mosteller, airport board member and former airport manager, said one of the runways, #18-36, may be closed by FDOT as early as May, because it will fail to pass inspection due to deteriorated runway striping.

Mosteller said money to repaint the striping has been budgeted several times over the last 10 years but has always been diverted to some other project. He said FDOT inspectors also said there is insufficient traffic at the airport to warrant a third runway. He said that closure of the third runway could provide space for new businesses to locate at the airport.

Pierce said if the county obtains money to bring the runway up to standards, even without aid from FDOT, it can be inspected and reopened.

In her report, Kirkland suggests submitting a request to RESTORE to upgrade the runway at a cost of about $70,000 to prevent its closure.

When pointing up challenges to airport development, Kirkland said the county should become more regional in its outlook by joining Florida’s Great Northwest, Opportunity Florida and Enterprise Florida’s Stakeholders Council. The county was formerly a member of all three organizations, but county staff withdrew because, in each case, commissioners felt the county was paying dues to an organization that did nothing to enhance economic growth here.

Kirkland said other challenges faced by the airport are the fact the county has little available long-term housing and that the airport is prone to strong winds.

Kirkland said the public profile of the airport should be improved and made more prominent through use of social media and ads in the Times and on Oyster Radio. She suggested that local residents undervalue the airport as an asset.

She said the airport will play an important role in the Gulf to Gadsden Freight Logistics Zone (FLZ) currently under development, through a state grant, that will fund development of an FLZ plan for Gulf, Gadsden, Liberty and Franklin counties which could allow for potential funding priority for projects within its boundaries. The designation might ultimately increase the use of the Port of Port St. Joe and revitalize the Apalachicola Northern Railway line that connects Port St. Joe and Chattahoochee passing through the four counties.

The FLZ, which could be achieved as soon as 2018, would allow for connectivity from seaports, airports, and rail and highway systems to help increase the flow of freight and increase economic development in the region. Since there is currently no railroad spur connecting the airport to A&N, a considerable amount of money to purchase land for the connector would be required.

Kirkland said the vacant Bay City Work Camp site, which is adjacent to the airport, could also somehow be incorporated into the FLZ plan. Her presentation suggested the work camp could be used as a film set by motion picture companies, and that the camp could become a school for pilots and aviation mechanics. Jim Moore, manager of fixed base operation, currently offers pilot training at Randolph Field. Mosteller said he was unsure who in the area could be recruited to teach classes in aviation maintenance and repair.

Kirkland said the county should seek increased interaction with the military and defense contractors.

When, in 2014, staging war games in Tate’s Hell State Forest was proposed by representatives of the Gulf Regional Airspace Strategic Initiative (GRASI), most Franklin County residents opposed the plan for fear of disruption of the ecosystem of the swamp. Ultimately, military planners radically diminished the program of training exercises in response to public opposition.

In a telephone interview after the presentation, Collins said Avcon did not suggest actively pursuing increased military activity at the airport.

 

Transportation to and from airport

Another challenge to economic development listed by Kirkland is that the county is too far south of US 10. In recent years, an east/west route through Tate’s Hell south of US-10 was proposed and drew harsh criticism from county residents for environmental reasons and because business owners feared it would lead to tourists bypassing Apalachicola and Carrabelle.

Another suggestion of BRPH, creation of a cooperative freezer system for the seafood industry, has been discussed and rejected many times in the past.

Kirkland suggested the county provide transportation for students to Haney Technical Institute in Bay County. This idea was investigated by county commissioners in recent years and failed to materialize because of logistics challenges to the program.

Kirkland suggested the county provide more courtesy cars for pilots and open a restaurant at the airport. She said the current FBO could be marketed as an aviation repair and maintenance station.

She said pilots are attracted by charter fishing opportunities and that celebrities and wealthy individuals who own airplanes could be courted to visit the area if more airport amenities were available.

According to Moore, the airport has one courtesy car and pilots can order a rental car through Enterprise but must arrange for a vehicle several days prior to their visit. There is also limited taxi service between the airport and other county destinations provided by three companies. An ad for Uber is posted in the terminal.

It is unclear whether a restaurant located at Randolph Field could attract enough business to be commercially viable, especially in competition with Apalachicola’s existing downtown restaurants. Keri Beth Hall, owner of two successful restaurants in Apalachicola, said she would not attempt to open an eatery at the airport because it lacked “draw.”

“People like to sit and look at the water and downtown you can watch the people but there’s no view at the airport,” she said.

Hall said she didn’t believe the airport could survive on aviation traffic and thought it would be unable to attract residents or visitors who did not arrive by air.

One suggestion of Kirkland’s report that seems to have merit is that the county build more T-hangars. She also said that non-aviation tenants in existing hangars should be evicted in favor of aviation-related tenants because there is currently a waiting list of pilots. Moore agreed there is a waiting list of potential tenants.

Mosteller said because the T-hangars are built with grants from the FDOT and the Federal Aviation Agency, non-aviation tenants are considered to be outside the designated use of the buildings and would limit the airport’s eligibility for such grants in the future.

Other schemes for the expanding local economy included creation of an off-road vehicle park on the spoils area adjacent to the airport and offering skydiving opportunities.