BROOKSVILLE — When Gov. Rick Scott visited Brooksville-Tampa Regional Airport late last month to celebrate a business success, Gary Schraut took the opportunity to hand him something that Schraut considers important to the airport's future.
Schraut, a local Realtor and chairman of the county's Aviation Authority, gave Scott a letter formally seeking the governor's support for the airport to add a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility.
It is the first step in what could be a lengthy process.
If Scott lends his support, the Aviation Authority will begin to analyze whether the cost of a customs office and inspector will pay for itself in benefits for current and future businesses and how long that might take.
Building an office for a customs inspector could cost $240,000 to $300,000, Schraut said. But the bigger concern is the ongoing operational cost. In the first year, the inspector cost would be approximately $141,000. That is what the authority would have to weigh.
"Operating costs are forever,'' he said.
The two air ambulance companies that are based at the airport have already lent their support to the effort. Since August 2007, Jet ICU has cleared customs 488 times in Tampa or in South Florida.
"We feel we can do 90 percent of these clears into the Hernando County airport,'' Jet ICU president and chief executive officer Michael Honeycutt wrote in a letter of support included in the packet to the governor.
Schraut explained that Jet ICU transports patients headed for Florida hospitals from the Caribbean and Central and South America. But since it must land at an airport with customs, those patients end up in hospitals outside Hernando County.
If the air ambulances could land at Brooksville, the patients could be treated at local hospitals, and it would make the operation of the air ambulances more efficient, Schraut said.
Honeycutt noted in his letter that his good relationship with Hospital Corporation of America has allowed his company to bring more patients to Florida. If Hernando could snag a customs office, he said, "it would not only benefit us, but the members of HCA and their patients as well.''
Oak Hill Hospital in Spring Hill is owned by HCA.
Honeycutt also said he thought that the benefit of having the customs inspector would help the county's economy because having an international option could be a plus for other local businesses.
Bart Gray, president of Global Jet Care, also wrote a letter in support of a customs office.
Just this year, his company has used Tampa International Airport for 80 outbound and 60 inbound clearances. The company operates two Learjet aircraft and plans to add a third and expand international operations. Gray noted that should increase the number of clearances by 50 percent next year.
In his letter to Scott, Schraut notes that adding customs would benefit a larger scope of businesses as well.
"The airport with its continuing marketing program is having success in generating interest from the international business aviation community,'' Schraut wrote. "A number of the companies that have shown an interest in opening a facility have informed us a customs facility at the airport would greatly enhance the ability of their organization to do business.''
One business that would find the Hernando airport a more attractive option with a customs operation would be a charter plane service traveling to and from the Caribbean and Central America, Schraut noted.
"I think we have a really great opportunity here,'' he said.
Another possible plus down the road could be bringing federal prisoners back to the Hernando County Detention Center, said county Commissioner Diane Rowden. She has been working with Honeycutt for several months to get the customs office idea rolling by serving as a liaison with the office of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
The county could generate additional revenue if the jail could again house federal prisoners through U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Rowden said.
The jail is across the street from the airport, and there is hope that the facility will be more attractive to ICE after completion of a freestanding medical facility early next year, Rowden said.
"There are just a lot of possibilities once you have customs in there … a lot of moneymaking possibilities,'' she said.
Michael McHugh, the county's business development manager agreed. While no local officials expect commercial passenger flights out of the airport, he said another industry — cargo shipping — could get a boost from customs.
"There are multiple options,'' McHugh said. "And you don't get there until you start here,'' seeking the support of the governor.
Schraut said the customs discussion is just the next step in improving what the airport has to offer.
A customs office was not a possibility prior to the opening of the new air traffic control tower at the airport in October.
"These are the steps we had to take,'' Schraut said. "It's a procession of steps to accomplish what we wanted, to create more jobs at the airport.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.