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Airport gets funding to forecast its future

Work on a 20-year plan to chart the future of the Hernando County Airport is finally taking off.

After several years of delays, the county's aviation authority recently got the necessary money from state and federal grants _ about $160,000 _ to proceed with the study, authorized by the County Commission earlier this year.

"We've been waiting on the federal government to do this study since 1991," said airport manager Ed Wuellner. "It's taken almost three years to get the federal government's participation."

That's because other airports around the country have been competing for similar money from the Federal Aviation Administration, which is paying most of the cost of the study, Wuellner said.

The three companies the county has hired to do the study _ Coastal Engineering Associates of Brooksville, HNTB, and Avcon, both of Orlando _ began their work last month.

In the next year, the companies will try to gauge the airport's future growth needs and decide whether the airport has the necessary facilities and money to meet those needs as it moves into the 21st century.

Airport officials hope the plan will ultimately pave the way for the general aviation airport to expand into charter flights and commercial aviation support services, possibly luring some business from Tampa International Airport. The airport, built by the U.S. Army in 1942, is mostly used for recreational and business flying.

The first part of the study will try to answer basic questions about the airport's future, such as: What's the airport going to look like 20 years from now? What types of cargo will fly through the airport? What kinds of aircraft will do the flying? And what will be the peak months and peak hours of use?

Such "base data" will be based on various indicators, such as present and past operating levels, the county's population growth and the impact of road projects, particularly the Suncoast Parkway, which will run along the western boundary of the airport.

The parkway, Wuellner said, will probably benefit the entire airport complex, which includes a 160-acre industrial park. Manufacturers that need access to Tampa will have more incentive to move to the airport industrial park, where leasing rates are generally lower than in Hillsborough County. Low rents coupled with the fast access to Tampa may also appeal to handlers of commercial cargo, like Federal Express.

"We can't offer the development incentives that Tampa could," Wuellner said. "But Tampa is short of aviation property. We're basically land rich and development poor."

The airport, situated off Spring Hill Drive west of U.S. 41, now uses just one-third of the 2,400 acres that it owns. The county leases the unused land to farmers.

Based on the forecasts, the planners will then focus on what developments, facilities and equipment will be necessary to meet future needs, how much they will cost, how they will be paid for, and what impact they will have on the environment.

Among the airport's most pressing needs is more space for parking planes. Further, the airport's two runways need to be strengthened and lengthened to about 8,000 square feet so that they can handle heavier, more diverse aircraft.

Public hearings on the master plan will be held in January and May, with a final ruling by the County Commission expected in July. Any plan also must be approved by the Florida Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Wuellner doesn't think that should be a problem.

The DOT named the Hernando airport Florida's general aviation airport of the year in 1993, reflecting its safety record and the upgrading of its facilities.

A county audit that recently criticized the airport's compliance with FAA policies on leases may actually help, Wuellner said.

"The FAA isn't concerned about the airport," he said. "They saw it (the audit) as self-evaluation."