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A quick Sansom meeting sought to explain airport facility

A year and a half after slipping $6-million into the state budget for an emergency facility at his hometown airport, House Speaker Ray Sansom led a hastily arranged meeting with local officials to explain how they might use it.

The meeting, held Dec. 10, came four days after the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau reported that the airport building was originally proposed by a friend of Sansom's, Jay Odom, a developer who wanted to park his jets in a taxpayer-funded hangar.

Sansom had secured state funding through an account designated for capital projects at colleges, and he called the meeting in his new role as vice president of Northwest Florida State College, which will own the facility and use it to teach emergency response classes.

But e-mails show that Sansom's Tallahassee staff helped coordinate the gathering.

Officials deny the meeting was damage control.

"It was to lay the groundwork of how the building was going to be used," said Tuffy Dixon, chief of the Destin Fire Control District.

Sitting around the conference table at the Destin fire station, coffee and water before them, public safety officials and representatives from the college worked through the details of how the vast, two-story building could be used in times of emergency.

According to those who attended, the discussion focused on specifics of how many people and vehicles might need to be housed in the event of emergency, even though the building was designed long ago.

Some critics, who say there is no burning need for an emergency operations center at the airport, question the events.

"It's CYA time," said former Destin Mayor Ken Beaird. "They got caught and now they're trying to justify … an aircraft hangar."

Sansom, R-Destin, who has been reclusive throughout the controversy, declined to comment Tuesday. On Monday, he said he was quitting the $110,000 college job effective Jan. 31.

The college, in a terse statement, described the meeting as "multiagency planning for preparation of future detailed memorandum of use agreements."

• • •

The airport project — and the controversy — first arose through Odom, a major Panhandle developer who has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Sansom and other Republican officials. In 2007, Odom tried to get state money for a hurricane-proof aircraft hangar on land he leased at the county airport. Odom's idea: He would store jets for his flight business there, and in times of disaster, such as a hurricane, local emergency officials would take over the building.

Odom never got the money. But around the same time, Sansom quietly inserted $6-million into the state budget for an emergency training center to be owned by Northwest Florida State College. It will be built on the site Odom intended for his hangar, to the design he got approved by city building officials.

In previous statements, Sansom has said he long envisioned an emergency operations center in Destin, which is on a peninsula, so rescue vehicles can be positioned after a storm passes.

Other local officials agree with him, but until Odom raised the idea, it had never been a topic of public discussion, according to a review of county and city minutes.

"If you take a hard look at it, there's no pressing need for it. Not at all," said former Destin City Council member Larry Williges, who voted to support Odom's request for state funding but now thinks it is unnecessary.

In the years after Hurricane Ivan in 2004, a different private airport company at Destin Airport approached county officials and asked if they wanted to build an emergency command post there.

"We said no because of the location," said Ken Wolfe, county emergency management coordinator.

Greg Gaddis, an Okaloosa County sheriff's official who attended the Dec. 10 meeting, said the Destin building is a good idea, but it wouldn't be useful in a really powerful storm. "If a Katrina was coming in, you wouldn't want to be that close to the water."

The county is now building a $7-million emergency operations center at the Northwest Florida State College Niceville campus, which is centrally located and on higher ground.

Dixon, the chief of the Destin Fire Control District, calls the Destin building a "godsend." He provided the Times/Herald with an agenda from the Dec. 10 meeting, which included agencies that would use the building during a storm and insurance and liability issues. Officials talked about what types of vehicles would be there and how many people. One major topic: Who would be liable in the event of an accident, the college or the individual agencies using the building in a storm?

Destin City Manager Greg Kisela also attended. "It was more an education for the college to have a better understanding of what it means," he said, referring to the emergency operations center.

He said the meeting was the first detailed discussion about the use of the building, even though the college has architectural and design plans that call for, among other things, extra thick floors to support aircraft.

A college spokeswoman said Tuesday there are no plans to change the design. Construction is scheduled to begin in March.

The only other substantial conversations involving emergency management officials happened in spring 2007, Kisela said, when Odom arranged a meeting at a Ramada Inn on Okaloosa Island.

Asked why the college waited so long to hold another one, Kisela replied: "I don't know. I was invited to a meeting and I attended."

Alex Leary can be reached at aleary@sptimes.come or (850) 224-7263.

A quick Sansom meeting sought to explain airport facility 01/06/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 7, 2009 7:57pm]
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