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High on the future // Hernando airport could become industrial focus

The 7,000-foot-long concrete strip may draw scant attention frommotorists who whiz by it every day on Spring Hill Drive.

But in Al Fluman's eyes, it is one of the best things that Hernando County has going for it in its effort to broaden its economy.

The strip is runway 927, one of two operational runways at Hernando County Airport. It is big enough to land most jets, including the new Boeing 757s and 767s, according to Fluman, the county's economic development director.

He hopes to have a full instrument landing system installed at the airport within two years. The years following will bring corporate jets, cargo planes, even commuter passenger service, he said.

"When that (system) is in place and fully operational, our opportunities are just about unlimited," Fluman said. The airport is accepting bids for the instrument system, estimated to cost $300,000, this month, he added.

The Hernando County Airport is a big prize for a county this size.

Built in the early 1940s as an Army training center, the 2,500-acre airport is second in size in this region only to 3,300-acre Tampa International Airport.

A 1989 study of Florida's air network by local, state and federal officials identified the potential for Hernando County Airport, which is on U.S. 41 just north of Masaryktown.

The Florida System Aviation Plan calls for Hernando to begin regular airline passenger service by 2005.

But even before that, Fluman said, the airport, and the county, can start profiting from air-cargo businesses or manufacturers looking for a distribution point.

A cargo company could deliver to Hernando, Pasco and parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties"without having the obvious congestion and surface transportation problems you would have, you do have, coming out of Tampa International or St. Pete-Clearwater (International Airport)," Fluman said.

The airport already is the site of a thriving 170-acre county-run

industrial park that is home to about 30 tenants.

With the land-use requirements in the county's comprehensive plan that limit the areas where industries can locate, the land around the airport, including the adjacent Holland Spring Industrial Park, is likely to become a focus of the Hernando economy, Fluman said.

The prospects for the land will look even brighter if the road network surrounding it is improved. Officials took one step in that direction last year when they widened Spring Hill Drive from two to four lanes from U.S. 41 three miles west to the entrances of the two industrial parks.

About $870,000 of the $1.2-million project was courtesy of the state Department of Commerce in the form of a grant to be used to stimulate economic development. Impact fees and road maintenance funds were used for the balance of the project.

U.S. 41 remains a heavily traveled, two-lane road. But Fluman said he is hopeful that the North Suncoast Corridor expressway, which is designed to run along the airport's west boundary, will become a reality.

"What a godsend that would be for the airport and the county," he said.

None of this is going to happen overnight, Fluman acknowledged. Any new expressway is years away at best. Buildings and terminals would have to be constructed to accommodate air freight or passengers.

And even the first step - installation of the airport's instrument landing system - will take at least 18 months.

Part of the cost is coming from airport fees and a state grant, Fluman said. But most of it, some $250,000, is expected to come from the Hernando County Commission, half in this year's budget and half in next year's.

"We put together a package and asked the Board of County Commissioners if they wanted to invest in Hernando County's future," Fluman said. "And they agreed."