Joe Lopano was, of all places, at a tailgate party up north when the woman from Tampa tracked him down.
He had just beaten out three other finalists for the job of running Tampa International Airport. But on this day, he was in Pennsylvania watching his son play football when a woman from Tampa heard he was there.
She came up, looked him in the eye. She actually shook a finger at him.
"Don't you mess up my airport," she said.
Lopano, no fool, answered correctly: "Yes. ma'am."
Welcome to town, Mr. Lopano, where we love our airport the way other cities love their natural wonders. Which might seem a little strange 'til you get used to us. And we get to know you.
Speaking of which. Lopano made news this week with the idea that top airport execs should fly business class instead of coach for longer work trips to be more productive on their laptops. Around here, in this rotten economy, we get our backs up at anything with even a whiff of a perk. He wisely rescinded the idea the day after it hit the paper.
His last gig was on the sell-it side of things as executive vice president of marketing at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. Though he loved Texas, he says it gets "sunny, with a chance of death" there. Tornado worry has been replaced by hurricane stress.
He turns out to be one of those likable types, all high energy, big plans and eyeglasses with hipness to rival Joe Maddon's. He is very different from our previous airport boss, Louis Miller, whom we loved for keeping our airport our airport but criticized for his autocratic ways.
He comes from North Tarrytown, N.Y., and worked in younger years as a caddy, bartender, cabbie and photographer, running to scenes to shoot pictures to sell to newspapers. He will tell you that one he took of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's mansion burning netted him a cool $60 from the Daily News.
He has climbed mountains and rafted the Rio Grande, and it's no surprise he has been busy exploring the best of here from Naples to Caladesi, in restaurants, on beaches or in a kayak with his wife Janet. His photos now are landscapes, clouds, boats, our particular Florida light. He is especially taken with our ospreys.
And he makes headlines.
It surprised him how fiercely we love our airport, down to those giant metal birds that hang there — birds that best not disappear (insert finger shaking here). He says TIA is ours, not his. He calls the building design "timeless" and "brilliant," is a sucker for a revolving restaurant and has a full appreciation of sunsets atop the ninth-floor parking deck. And his team has already suggested a tiki bar up there.
So his "yes, ma'am" at the tailgate party should not be interpreted as any hesitation about plans like offering airlines financial incentives, such as fee waivers and advertising, to get us more international flights. (A numbers man, he says only 56 percent of visitors to the Pinellas beaches flew in to TIA.)
No Vegas, he promises. But think hi-def TVs with ads for our beaches, followed by a cooking segment. Which makes people hungry, and, hey, the airport has restaurants.
He has big plans for a big future for our airport. We love our metal birds from the past. Now there's a to-do list for you.