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Hernando County Airport's new control tower should draw new opportunities

If you've ever toured Cape Canaveral, you have a rough — okay, very rough — idea of what it's like to approach the new control tower at the Hernando County Airport.

Like NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building, that massive structure where rockets are put together, the tower doesn't look that impressive from a distance.

But as you come closer after passing through all the open space at the 2,400-acre airport — as I did on a supervised tour last week — you'll notice that you're craning your neck to take in the new, 82-foot-tall, blue and gray structure.

You'll also notice you're getting impressed. And, once inside, getting more impressed.

Aviation Authority Chairman Gary Schraut and airport manager Don Silvernell pointed out the spots for future conference and break rooms for the air traffic controllers contracted — yes, that means paid for by the Federal Aviation Administration.

In the cab, as the room at the top of the tower is called, you're surrounded by large tinted windows and wide views of the county. The white dot on the northern horizon is the water tower in downtown Brooksville. Nature Coast Technical High School, which seems so big from the street, looks like a little collection of silver-colored roofs from the tower.

More important, you see planes. Quite a few of them. A large Army National Guard C-23 Sherpa touched down on the main runway several times as part of a training exercise. Between its appearances, several small, private propeller planes snuck onto the tarmac for takeoffs or landings.

Before the tower was completed — actually, until it formally opens in a few months — pilots were on their own at the airport. They called in to a common airport radio channel before taking off or landing, hashed out a rough arrival or departure schedule with any other pilots in the vicinity and, after taking a look around, made their move.

It could be chaotic, and everybody involved with the airport has stories of close calls, including the ultralight aircraft that almost ended up as a bug on the windshield of a C-23.

So, safety is the main reason for the construction of the tower. But there's another reason, too, which is why the comparison to NASA's VAB — one of the largest structures, by volume, in the world — isn't quite the stretch it may seem.

Because for Hernando County's economic future, this tower could be huge.

And in this county, there is no bigger issue than attracting industry. People sometimes ask me what the county is doing to bring good jobs to Hernando. More than you think, I tell them.

Despite the sluggish economy, the number of leased buildings at the county-owned Airport Industrial Park has continued to grow. This is reflected in the steady growth of manufacturing jobs from a low point of 1,058 in October 2009 to 1,350 in June 2011, the most recent figures available.

That's not nearly enough to make up for the plummeting number of construction jobs, which dropped from nearly 5,000 in June 2006 to fewer than 1,800 last year, according to the Pasco-Hernando Workforce Board.

But here's how the tower can help.

Along with the long runways at the airport, the assurance of safety that the tower provides puts the county in the running to attract air freight companies, more air ambulances (there are already two at the airport), government aeronautical contractors and companies that repair large airplanes.

To sweeten the pot for the last use, the airport plans to build a 32,000-square-foot building with a hangar big enough for jets seating up to 80 passengers. Construction is expected to start this summer, Silvernell said, and the work will be paid for with money collected from the lease of industrial property at the airport.

That comes to about $1.7 million per year, and this stream of money was also tapped to build the $2.2 million tower, or at least the 20 percent that wasn't funded by grant money from the state Department of Transportation.

There is one other obstacle to luring good-paying jobs to Hernando, a legacy of the county's over-dependence on housing: a pool of workers who know how to hang drywall or operate a paint roller and not much else.

And, while we're on the subject, we should remember that for most people in Hernando, the good times weren't that good. With jobs in retail, lawn service and construction, wages were lower than any metro area in the country.

"The best way to transform the economy is to transform the work force," said Mike McHugh, the county's business development manager.

To make that happen, the county is seeking state funding for adult job training programs at Nature Coast Technical High and coordinated with the help of Pasco-Hernando Community College, which in some cases will offer related classroom instruction that could translate into an associate's degree.

And, if the tower can build momentum for developing the airport, there may even be good jobs waiting for them when they graduate.

I told you, this tower is impressive.

Hernando County Airport's new control tower should draw new opportunities 03/17/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 17, 2012 1:17pm]
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