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Future for airport in Pasco stuck on ground

The flight plan for the Tampa Bay Executive Airport just hit some turbulence.

The airport, along State Road 54 near Odessa, could close in three to five years, the manager said last week, touching off a new round of interest in potential government ownership of an airport serving west Pasco.

Hold on a minute. Government interest isn't needed because there has been no talk of closing the airfield, the president of the company owning the airport countered in an interview Tuesday.

While the airport's future is uncertain, one thing's for sure: This is a familiar flight.

In 1987, the state Department of Transportation asked Pasco County to consider getting into the airport business. Acquire what is now known as the Tampa Bay Executive Airport, or start your own elsewhere, the state suggested, in order to relieve expected air traffic congestion at Tampa International Airport.

There was little enthusiasm on the county's part because of anticipated costs. A state-financed study indicated more than 600 acres would be needed, but the county never moved beyond that point because of the availability of the private airport.

Fifteen years later the issue again is under scrutiny. This time, there may be more immediacy. The Tampa Bay Executive Airport dodged a potential closing last year over insurance availability. Now, airport manager Anita Hoover said the proximity of future road projects to the runway and pending residential growth means the airport could close in three to five years.

Such a fate is tied to economics. The future widening of State Road 54 on the north side of the airfield and the extension of Trinity Boulevard to the south means the land beneath the single-runway airport is more valuable as developable property.

"When you have 10 lanes of road around you, I don't think that it's rocket science to say the airport is doomed," Hoover said.

Fifty-three acres at nearby Little Road and SR 54 recently sold for an astounding $349,000 per acre for the planned Community Hospital relocation. Similar prices for the airport's 112 acres are unlikely, but the pending road access still makes the land "one of the choicest pieces of real estate in west Pasco," said Property Appraiser Mike Wells.

Such talk of closing is speculative, said Lew Friedland, president of Seven Eagles Inc., the airport's owner and affiliate of the companies developing Trinity Communities. "We're in the airport business. There is lots and lots of vacant land around us. We're not the last piece of land to be developed."

The airfield serves as home to a Bayflite air ambulance, a plane for the West Pasco Mosquito Control District and approximately 100 other planes. A privately owned industrial park sits across SR 54 from the airport, but the airfield and economic development aren't closely tied together. The closing shouldn't have a significant affect on industrial recruitment, said Mary Jane Stanley of the Economic Development Council.

It's just the opposite in Zephyrhills where the municipal airport also has an industrial park. Though the city-owned airport in Zephyrhills is now losing money, it turned a profit just three years ago. It has received millions of dollars worth of grants for improved runways, lights, taxiways and hangars. It is home to more than 100 aircraft, up from just 13 seven years ago. The area's skydiving industry had a $1.5-million payroll and brought 3,000 visitors annually, according to 1999 figures.

Those kinds of numbers have Commissioner Peter Altman wondering about west Pasco with no airport. If the Tampa Bay Executive Airport closes, the nearest landing field will be the privately owned strip serving the Hidden Lakes Estates subdivision on the north side of Moon Lake Road, leaving heavily urbanized west side of the county without a corporate airport.

The public debate is welcome in light of the financial considerations. The start-up price for a new airport would be exorbitant considering the required open space and construction costs. To a county facing spending questions surrounding future libraries, parks, roads and other items, airport ownership seems an expensive luxury.

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