Louis Miller, Tampa International Airport's executive director, may have made the right call when he decided to demolish a $4 million office building owned by the airport to make room for a new hangar. But he went about it all wrong and learned his lesson on Thursday.
At issue was the fate of a two-story office building that had been generating some $500,000 in rent annually until the airport lost its tenant. Long-range plans call for putting a hangar where the 30-year-old building sits, so Miller opted to demolish the 45,000-square-foot facility instead of seeking a new tenant.
Before he made that decision official, he ran the idea past Al Austin, chairman of the Hillsborough Aviation Authority, which governs the airport. Austin agreed that it was a good move. But Miller did not bring it before the aviation authority board, and that was a mistake.
Miller said the board must be consulted about buying and selling property, but he said airport policy allows him to decide how to maintain, or even destroy, airport property. Trouble is, Austin owns 400,000 square feet of office space not far from the airport, and he's got his own vacancy problems. In fact, a new report by the real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield found that the West Shore area's vacancy rate rose to nearly 22 percent by the end of 2009, the worst in the Tampa Bay region.
Airport Authority member Steve Burton said Miller should have brought the matter before the full board, not just the chairman. He was right, and Austin had a conflict of interest. While Austin said he isn't competing with the airport for tenants, this looked a bit too cozy.
On Thursday, the aviation board voted 3-1, with Burton dissenting, to continue with the demolition. But board members also told Miller that any such future decisions need to be reviewed by the full board. That is the proper approach. Tampa International Airport is one of the best in the world and widely regarded as well-run, but that does not mean it's acceptable to cut corners.