There are 38 airports across Florida at which air traffic is controlled by personnel in a Federal Aviation Administration tower. Making Hernando County Airport the 39th, however, continues to spur protests from local pilots who contend a control tower is costly and unnecessary.
Hernando commissioners are correct not to clip the wings of what should prove to be a valuable asset.
It is cost-efficient to county government with 80 percent of the construction price to be borne by the state Department of Transportation. The remainder is not from property tax dollars. Rather, the money comes from the proceeds of leases and fees paid by airport and industrial park tenants. Federal rules require that money to be spent on the airport property. In other words, money produced at the airport must stay at the airport. The FAA also will staff the tower.
Dollars and cents aside, the tower makes common sense. It will bolster safety at the airport, particularly as traffic there expands, as expected, in the near future. It is easy to look at past incident reports and say the tower is unwarranted because the airport is safe already. But, such a myopic view fails to consider the long-term growth potential of what is the centerpiece of the county's economic recruiting.
The 2,400-acre airport and industrial park currently has 1.5 million square feet of industrial space accounting for more than 2,000 jobs. Its location between U.S. 41 and the Suncoast Parkway and near the CSX rail lines makes it an attractive site for businesses needing ready access to ground, rail and air transit.
And aviation-related industries are interested. Economic recruiter Michael McHugh said last week that Hernando is one of three sites courting an aircraft manufacturer, but the county could fall from consideration if the tower project is not completed.
Some pilots, 90 of whom signed a petition against the tower development, pine for the continued days of uncontrolled airspace around Hernando and likely consider the tower and accompanying federal regulations as just one more bureaucracy limiting their freedom. One even suggested following tower directions would drive up fuel costs from excessive taxiing and lead pilots to move their aircraft elsewhere. That is a stretch. Convenience and reasonable rents at hangars are more likely considerations for flying enthusiasts to remain in Hernando.
The tower presents Hernando County with a chance to advance significantly its airport and accompanying economic development opportunities. Commissioner Wayne Dukes, previously reluctant to support the tower construction, reversed directions and joined a commission majority in hiring a company to oversee the $2.25 million construction. It is a smart move, the wisdom of which escaped only Commissioner Jim Adkins, who continued his objections.
It is unfortunate. Economic investments in the county shouldn't be grounded by short-sighted vision from the commission cockpit.