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Pinellas examines Airco Golf Course's potential



It's years away, but Airco Golf Course could become a part of Pinellas history after nearly a half-century in existence.

On Tuesday, the County Commission agreed to explore closing the course and dividing its 129 acres up for aviation, office, industrial and hotel use.

The commission's decision was based on a consultant's feasibility study for the course, which is part of St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport and sits on Old Tampa Bay.

The study suggests limiting the intensity of the project to avoid additional levels of review by state regulators.

What's proposed would reserve 25 acres for aviation use and dedicate 78 acres for two hotels and a mix of office and industrial buildings that would help satisfy the county's long-range economic development needs. The remaining land is unsuitable for development.

The data used for the study were collected well before the current market collapse, and even the consultant suggested additional research. Plus, several hurdles must be met before final decisions are made and work on the site commences.

With so much uncertainty, County Commissioner Ronnie Duncan cautioned against alarming the public by prematurely suggesting that the consultant's plan is a blueprint for future development.

"We have some potential to do great things with this property," Duncan said. "We also have the potential to have a big train wreck at the end of the day."

The surrounding road network is not up to the task of handling development on the site. Commissioners agreed that key road projects, such as a connector between Bayside Bridge and 118th Avenue and a limited access highway linking U.S. 19 and Interstate 275 along 118th Avenue, need to be in place before the development is completed.

In a best-case scenario, the limited access highway would not be finished until 2012 or 2013. The state hasn't even set money aside for the Bayside Bridge connector.

Then there's the Federal Aviation Administration. Airport director Noah Lagos said he had met with FAA officials who are asking whether an environmental study of the site is warranted. Also, Lagos said the federal agency may not be satisfied with just 25 acres being reserved for aviation.

"That's going to be a future point of discussion," he said.

The county owns the airport, which in turn owns and operates the golf course, which was built in 1961.

Though they agreed to move forward with the concept of developing Airco, commissioners stressed the need to move deliberately and with a high degree of public participation.

That's what Michael Schlensker, a retiree who lives in nearby Feather Sound, expects.

Schlensker said the neighborhood has concerns about traffic, increased noise and maintaining a suitable buffer between any development and the community.

"We're participants in this and would like more participation," he said. "Feather Sound wants to be involved."

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or 445-4166.

By the numbers

129 acres make up the current Airco Golf Course.

25 acres would be set aside for aviation use under the proposed plan.

78 acres would be dedicated for two hotels and a mix of office and industrial buildings.

26 acres are unsuitable for development.

Pinellas examines Airco Golf Course's potential 10/28/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 30, 2008 2:51pm]
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