BROOKSVILLE — Dogged by controversy from its inception, a control tower for the Hernando County Airport won approval from the County Commission this week, coming in with a $2.25 million price tag.
Even as the commissioners were discussing approval of the contract for the construction manager at risk, Peter R. Brown Construction Inc., critics of the proposal on Tuesday continued to argue that the county could not prove a need for the pricey structure.
Proponents countered that the county had already proved the need to the Federal Aviation Administration. They added that the tower would make the airport even safer and more attractive to businesses the county is trying to lure to Hernando County.
David Lemon, long-time pilot and a former member of the Aviation Authority, continued his effort to kill the project by urging commissioners to allow him a say in where money he has paid into the airport over the years is spent.
The project is largely funded through the aviation arm of the Florida Department of Transportation, which pays 80 percent of the cost. Airport reserves, money collected by the airport, will make up the difference, airport manager Don Silvernell told commissioners Tuesday.
Under the current plan, the FAA will pay for the staffing of the tower, a cost of about $450,000 annually, after it is built. The county will be responsible for maintenance and utilities, which will run about $15,000 per year, Silvernell said.
But Commission Chairman Jim Adkins, who has also been opposed, was still concerned that the county might get stuck funding operation of the tower in the future.
While Silvernell detailed the airport budget to demonstrate the impact of the tower expense, Adkins said he worried that the FAA funding might dry up at some point leaving the county to foot the entire bill. He was the sole no vote on the tower contract approval.
Ninety pilots who use the airport signed petitions opposing the tower, Lemon argued. No daily log reflecting the number of flights in and out of the airport has ever been taken, he said. Lemon also said that a tower is not an insurance requirement, and that the airport is safe now as evidenced by the fact that no accident has ever occurred there.
Another long-time pilot, Karl Bambas of Timber Pines, said that the county has always argued that if the tower were built, more businesses would come. But he said that "Field of Dreams" philosophy doesn't work. In fact, "pilots seek out airports without towers,'' he said.
A tower means that someone controls where planes can move and when. Bambas said towers inhibited efficiency and increase cost to pilots. The county should only build a control tower, he said, "after a groundswell of support from the local aviation community.''
Building the tower is just taking the next step toward improving the airport and the project has been fully studied and supported by the FAA, said Aviation Authority Chairman Gary Schraut. "I think it's the next step in the future of our airport,'' he said.
"Certainly, this is a proactive step,'' said Michael McHugh, the county's business development manager.
He called untrue statements by critics that a tower won't positively influence some businesses when they decide where to open or expand. Even now, Hernando is one of three potential sites for an aircraft manufacturing facility. If the county dropped plans for the tower, it would fall out of contention for the project, McHugh said.
The tower also had the strong support of Hernando Progress Inc. In a letter to the board, the group's president Mickey Smith urges approval, noting that no general funds would be spent on the construction.
"In 1984 and 1988 and again in the early 1990s money was expended by the county to make improvements to the airport,'' Smith wrote. "Those investments have provided a source of tax revenue to the county and over 2,000 jobs.''
Smith also noted that aviation-related jobs are among the highest paying jobs and new jobs are needed badly in the community.
Commissioner John Druzbick said there have been several cases when not having a control tower has influenced business decisions. "Any safety factor we can have, any way we can attract business is a step forward,'' Druzbick said.
Commissioner Wayne Dukes, who has voted no for other aspects of the tower project, said Tuesday that he has always been concerned with the argument that simply building the structure would lure more business development.
But he noted that he has done more research now and "that made the picture clearer to me and I will support it,'' Dukes said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or ((352) 848-1434.