BROOKSVILLE — When David Tidwell attended an aviation convention last year in Orlando, he was shopping for information that would help him decide where to start his new aircraft-modification business.
One of the booths he saw was from Hernando County, and it prominently displayed information about everything Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport had to offer.
In the months that followed, Tidwell visited the airport nearly a half-dozen times. First, he looked at a site where officials planned a new aviation maintenance hangar. In the end, he settled on an existing hangar and office that had just become available.
Last week, as he stood before the Hernando County Commission seeking incentives to seal the deal, Tidwell said he looked at other places, but Hernando best met his needs.
Near an aviation hub in Tampa, he said he believed he would find a good workforce. The airport also offered plenty of room for expansion. And, he said, he enjoyed the welcoming, helpful and personable staff that helped him close the negotiations.
"I haven't found that in other places,'' he said.
Tidwell, 58, is coming back to his roots as he prepares to open Transformation Aviation Services. A Florida native who most recently has lived in the St. Louis area, he expects to get his first airplane transformation project under way in the next several weeks.
He has decades of experience in aviation, starting directly out of high school, when he worked for Piper Aircraft. He has recently worked as an aircraft transformation consultant, and noted that he's been in some aspect of the business since the early 1980s.
The plan in Hernando is to focus on modifying aircraft for heads of state internationally, as well as for corporate executives who use their airplanes for everything from their office to their resting quarters as they travel.
He provided photographs to commissioners showing "before" and "after" views. The first was the inside of a stripped-down airplane; the second, a posh, luxurious living space.
Tidwell said the market for specially outfitted aircraft comes and goes, but that many countries overseas, including many in Europe and Africa, need specially equipped aircraft for heads of state. The outfitted planes are also used by rich and famous celebrities, he added.
County officials are thrilled with Tidwell's decision to come to Hernando with his startup company. As an incentive, commissioners waived the $377,000 cost of leasing the old Corporate Jet Solutions site at the airport for three years, provided that Tidwell keeps his promise of creating 125 jobs by the third year and maintaining the jobs for at least two additional years.
Those jobs will pay well over the typical wages in the area — at an average of nearly $46,000 a year.
This will be Hernando's largest influx of new jobs from one company in recent memory, said Valerie Pianta, the county's economic development supervisor.
It also is the first major company the county has landed since the controversial decision the commission made late last year to dissolve the Hernando County Aviation Authority. During last week's discussion of the incentive package for Tidwell's company, pilot David Lemon blasted commissioners for abolishing the authority because aviators who use the airport now have no public input into such decisions.
Later, Spring Hill resident Michael Burmann also said the public perception is that the county made a "power grab" when it didn't replace the authority with an airport advisory board, as promised.
But county officials disagreed strongly.
"How does this board do a takeover of something we already owned?'' Commissioner Wayne Dukes asked.
Chairman Nick Nicholson agreed.
"The reason we got the new business today is because they got to deal with Kevin (Daugherty, airport manager) and Len (Sossamon, county administrator) directly, and it was expeditious,'' Nicholson said.
Tidwell confirmed to the Times that in other places he considered, he ran into some issues "with the red tape from airport authorities.'' At one, an official involved with vetting Tidwell's business explained the extra hoops he had to jump through by saying "he had kissed many frogs," Tidwell said.
"At that time,'' he said, "I knew I had to go elsewhere.''
News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.