BROOKSVILLE — Christmas has come early for Hernando County officials.
They have received a copy of a much-anticipated letter that opens the door for development of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility at the Brooksville-Tampa Regional Airport.
The letter indicates Gov. Rick Scott's wholehearted support for the project, which was necessary before moving forward.
"When I saw it, I was very excited,'' said Gary Schraut, chairman of the Hernando County Aviation Authority.
A customs facility, which would allow the airport to handle international passengers and aircraft, has been touted as the next step to increase business at the airport and its surrounding industrial, corporate and rail parks.
On Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scott wrote the letter to Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, asking for her positive consideration of Hernando County's application to be granted "user fee airport'' status, a designation that indicates a customs facility.
"There has been an effort over the past two years to increase customs staff at airports around the state of Florida,'' Scott wrote. "With the addition of Hernando County's status, it will not only alleviate some of the burden other airports are facing, but it will increase business opportunities and job creation in the county.''
Scott notes that there are two international air ambulance companies at the airport and each supports the addition of customs services because that would be "a substantial benefit not only to their companies but to the businesses they serve in the county.''
The county's continued marketing efforts have also generated interest from the international aviation community, and some companies have said that a customs operation "would greatly enhance their desire to do business there,'' Scott wrote.
"It's awesome,'' said county Commissioner Dave Russell. "I think it's a heck of an opportunity for Hernando County to have a customs facility here and a heck of an opportunity for attracting new business.''
Commissioner Diane Rowden, who has been pushing the customs idea for the better part of a year, said she was thrilled that the letter of support had been written.
Not only will the two existing air ambulance companies see benefits; local hospitals would be able to receive international patients for the first time.
"You're talking about bringing in patients to Hernando County, bringing families here to stay in our local hotels … and spend money in our local businesses,'' Rowden said. "This is definitely going to have a snowball effect of business opportunities and job creation in Hernando County.
"I'm excited about it.''
Schraut noted that the letter was the first step, but an important one.
"We're getting some movement," he said. " Are we done? No. We've still got a lot of homework to do.''
The first part of that homework will be to bring U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio up to date on the project, Schraut said. Meanwhile, county airport and economic development staffers will work to answer questions about the costs and the demand for the customs services.
Rowden said she has been working with Nelson's office and that he supports the facility.
The cost of opening a facility is another major consideration. Schraut has said that building an office could cost $300,000. But the aviation authority also has to consider operational costs. The first-year cost for an inspector is estimated at $141,000.
Officials are exploring various funding options, including possibly training local law enforcement officers to assist with customs. Col. Mike Maurer said the Sheriff's Office is open to talking with county officials about the project.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.