If Hernando is successful in teaming with Space Florida to bring civilian research and development jobs to the county-owned airport, the accolades go to Commissioner Diane Rowden's perseverance and the open-mindedness of fellow commissioners Nick Nicholson and Jim Adkins.
Last week, that trio overcame prevailing pandering and finger-pointing to position the Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport as a potential choice in the national search for sites to integrate unmanned aircraft into civilian airspace. The idea of Hernando's airport being home to testing for so-called drone aircraft brought objections from local pilots, the Nature Coast Coalition for Peace and Justice and anti-government tea partiers who worried about safety and privacy issues. The public debate also spurred encouraging statements of support from the Board of Realtors and others taking a broader view.
It also brought hard-to-figure commentary from the two nay-sayers on the dais. Chairman David Russell, a pilot, acknowledged drone aircraft's future role in aviation, but said the technology needs to be developed somewhere else. Commissioner Wayne Dukes offered that "my gut says this is not good for this county'' after criticizing the county staff for his own lack of knowledge and suggesting "staff has a mission and they didn't fulfill it and they made us look like idiots.''
Scape-goating employees in front of the objectors is easy. Leadership requires more effort and the close-minded approach is a disservice to the public. It does nothing to advance the often-talked-about attempts to diversify the Hernando County economy from its long-standing over reliance on the residential construction industry. Russell and Dukes should have followed the more objective logic of Adkins, who clearly had reservations, but who voted to more forward because of built-in safeguards.
The split vote allows Hernando to piggy-back Space Florida's application to be one of six test sites for navigating drone aircraft into civilian airspace by 2015. Fifty locals from 37 states also are seeking to get in on the ground floor of expanding the use of unmanned aircraft that could produce a huge economic windfall to the successful applicants. The Space Florida team includes major universities, NASA and multiple airports around Florida.
It's the kind of partnerships and exposure that will benefit Hernando as it seeks to rebrand its airport and accompanying industrial/commerce sites as something more than the suburban edge of the Tampa Bay region. The commission majority of Rowden, Nicholson and Adkins were wise to recognize the advantages of this application and to try to boost Hernando's standing in the aviation industry.