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Hangar was key for developer's jet business

DESTIN — A $6 million airport project dogging House Speaker Ray Sansom was going to play a more significant role in a developer's jet business than was previously understood.

Panhandle developer Jay Odom intended to use the two-story hangar to satisfy government requirements that his new company, Destin Jet, offer aircraft maintenance services.

Instead, Northwest Florida State College will use the half-acre to build a first-responder training center that has a two-story, hangar-sized room where emergency officials can work in times of natural disasters. Sansom arranged state funding for the building, and Odom is leasing the school the land.

And although Destin Jet is about to open and Odom has known for more than a year that a college building will go up instead of his maintenance facility, he has yet to tell county officials how he'll meet their FAA-recommended mandate to offer repair service.

The revelation raises new questions about whether the taxpayer-funded college building at Destin Airport was going to be shared by Odom, a heavyweight GOP contributor and longtime Sansom friend.

When the Times/Herald raised questions about the maintenance aspect of the building, Okaloosa County's airports director said he would have to review the plans.

"It's a controversial subject, and I don't want to get the airport inadvertently involved in something that is something else," Okaloosa County airports director Greg Donovan said of an overall review he conducted.

The airport project is the subject of a grand jury investigation launched this week that is looking broadly at Sansom's relationship with the college. Sansom, R-Destin, took an unadvertised $110,000 per year job with the school two months ago, on the same day he became House speaker.

In the previous two years, as the House's top budget writer, Sansom helped funnel more than $35 million in extra or accelerated funding to the school. Sansom resigned the college position as a result of the controversy and his last day is Saturday. He has defended the spending, saying the final budget was available for all lawmakers to scrutinize before voting.

Sansom, Odom and college officials all insist Odom was not involved in the development of the college's airport project and there was never any plan for him to use it. But public records and comments from some close to the issue suggest there was significant overlap.

In short, Odom had proposed getting $6 million in state money to build a hurricane-proof hangar at Destin Airport on some of the land he had leased from Okaloosa County to open Destin Jet. Odom planned to park the larger jets in his fleet in the building and offer aircraft maintenance. In exchange for public financing, Odom would turn the building over to emergency officials during natural disasters for use as a staging area. Destin city officials endorsed the project, but Odom never got state money.

About the same time, Sansom said he approached Northwest Florida State College with an offer: He could get the school $6 million in unbudgeted money if the school wanted to build a training facility for first responders that could double as an emergency operations staging area in times of natural disaster. The school said yes.

Sansom says he didn't know anything about Odom's failed proposal. Sansom said that once the state money was secured for the college, he stepped out of the picture and wasn't involved when the college chose to locate the building on the same plot of land that Odom had hoped to use.

Next week, the Okaloosa County Commission will vote on the sublease the college has signed with Odom. Donovan said he is satisfied with the plans and has gotten additional assurance from the college about its plans.

But Odom has not yet told him how he will provide maintenance space. "Until they are ready to open up," Donovan said, "the ball is really in their court."

Odom has 10 other hangars on the property, but they are all about 4,000 square feet each, well below the size needed to meet the maintenance requirement. There is a possibility he could refashion some of the space or he could contract with another jet company to lease some of its space.

Odom did not return calls for comment, nor did his marketing director, Martin Owen.

County and city officials say Odom's proposed joint-use building — the one he never got state funding for — was supposed to satisfy the maintenance requirement. "That was the intent," said Jerry Sealy, Donovan's predecessor, who worked with Odom on the development.

"The impression was the big building was going to be a maintenance facility," said Ken Gallander, Destin's community development director.

Gallander said he has always believed the building would serve a dual use: part aircraft hangar, part education facility. He's never been told otherwise, but recently has heard news reports to the contrary.

Still, the college insists there was no overlap.

"At no point was this project, that project," college president Bob Richburg said last week after a board of trustees meeting at the college's main campus in Niceville.

The sublease signed by Odom and Richburg and slated for a county commission vote Tuesday states "nothing in this sublease is to be interpreted as creating a partnership or joint venture between any of the parties. Only a landlord/tenant relationship is created hereby."

It also includes a clause that allows Odom first priority to "re-purchase the leasehold interest in the facility" if the college decided to cease using the building for training.

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

Hangar was key for developer's jet business 01/29/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 30, 2009 5:32pm]
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