ZEPHYRHILLS — The city's airport has long been synonymous with skydiving, but city officials hope a multimillion-dollar building program will eventually enhance the airport's image as a hub for corporate clients, charters and other businesses.
About $4 million worth of improvements are planned over the next four years. Crews will start work next month on the largest project — rebuilding the primary runway, a holdover from World War II.
The runway, the biggest of two airstrips at the general aviation facility, once fielded bombers when the airport served as an Army Air Forces base.
"It's still the same runway since the 1940s," airport manager and pilot Mike Handrahan said, adding that outside some minor fixes the strip is essentially unchanged.
Over eight months, crews will rebuild the runway from the ground up — ripping out the landing strip and replacing the base and surface. The remaining runway will remain open.
They'll also install LED lighting to guide pilots, new visual landing aids, more fencing around the airport's perimeter — some fencing was added this year — and new gates and cameras before turning to an unused taxiway to make it functional again. Most of the funding will come from state and federal grants. The city approved about $500,000 last summer.
Though officials insist the improvements are sorely needed now, they also say they hope the work yields a long-term payoff in the form of increased tenants and activity. The airport handles about 50,000 takeoffs and landings yearly, Handrahan said.
Officials years ago talked about luring FedEx or UPS but have since scaled back those aims, pushing for charters, aviation-related businesses and possibly small corporate jets.
Even that would represent a boost from the existing clientele of mostly general aviation pilots and skydiving enthusiasts, who flock to Zephyrhills in huge numbers.
"As with any business we hope to attract new customers," Handrahan said.
City Manager Jim Drumm said the airport has recently added more hangars to store planes, which has helped draw recreational and corporate clients.
"I think we'll see more jet traffic," he said, referring to the pending improvements. "And we're excited about Raymond James and what they may bring in terms of corporate business."
The Pinellas-based financial services company said it plans to open an office in south Pasco.
Talk of the improvements has already produced results. An FAA-certified international flight-training school is poised to open early next year with 10 aircraft and three helicopters.
"The improvement of the runway is really important. It will let us use a bigger airplane, as well as having better lighting to help with training," said Jhon Rozo, owner of Rotors of America, which is set to launch in January or February.
Not everyone is optimistic, though. T.K. Hayes, co-owner and general manager of Skydive City, cited improvements at other airfields that failed to boost clientele.
"As an aviation enthusiast I think it's great. As a taxpayer, I think it's a pipe dream," he said.
Rich Shopes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.