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Time to bring it in for a landing

Ron Barton saw dollar signs when he looked at Albert Whitted Airport. The slim peninsula with the spectacular view of Tampa Bay could be a gold mine, he thought, especially with the resurgence of downtown real estate.

Barton, the city's economic development director, envisioned a waterfront park instead of concrete runways; townhomes and shops instead of metal hangars. He imagined young professionals living and playing there.

In the spring of 2002, after a year of planning, Barton showed City Council members his proposal for an "urban village" to replace the airport. With that, he unintentionally set in motion a series of events that culminates Tuesday with a historic vote to determine the airport's future.

But what started as a plan to rid the city of Albert Whitted now seems likely to end with a public mandate to protect it forever.

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There have been fights over Albert Whitted for almost as long as it has been an airport. In 1935, just a few years after Albert Whitted opened, Bayboro Investment Co. asked the City Council to shut it down, saying the land was intended for wharves. The St. Petersburg Times' editorial board has been calling for Albert Whitted to be shut down since 1940.

Since then, there have been proposals to use the land as an auditorium, a recreation center, a baseball field and a parking lot.

Perhaps the most serious challenge came in 1983, when the city considered closing the airport to expand the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

"We're doing the exact same thing right now that we did back then," said Randy York, chairman of the Albert Whitted Political Action Committee."We fight the battle and we think we've won. Then we get another administration in office and we start all over again."

In November of 2002, the City Council voted unanimously to reject Barton's plan and leave Albert Whitted alone.

That angered a group of local activists who said the council should have held a public hearing to decide the airport's future. In late 2002, they sketched their vision for the airport site and launched a plan to put it on the ballot in 2003.

The proposal by Citizens for a New Waterfront Park calls for the airport to be demolished and a waterfront park built on half the property. The remainder could not be sold or leased for a period longer than five years.

Park supporters envision a public use for the rest of the land, such as an expansion of USF.

After months of approaching people in parks and outside supermarkets, the group gathered enough signatures to put the question on the ballot, just weeks before September's deadline.

Then the City Council got involved.

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"What the heck did we decide?" exclaimed Jack Tunstill, a leading airport advocate. "They just postponed a decision to make a decision."

It was the end of another City Council workshop, and council members had again failed to agree on how to word ballot questions. It took more than five months of bickering and four workshops to decide on the language.

At its Sept. 18 meeting, the council settled on two questions. The first reads: "Should Albert Whitted Airport remain open forever by amending the City Charter to require retention of an airport?"

The second asks voters if city officials could continue to accept 20-year federal grants to pay for the airport's maintenance and operation.

With the ballot questions finalized, the campaign for Albert Whitted's future began in earnest. Airport supporters formed a political action committee and started raising funds.

The Citizens for a New Waterfront Park appeared to have momentum. More than 15,000 people had signed their petition. They had two very generous donors, lawyer Larry Beltz and retired businessman James MacDougald, who together contributed more than $80,000. The St. Petersburg Times' editorial board endorsed their plan.

But "Support Albert Whitted Airport" yard signs continued to multiply around the city. And the airport supporters' message _ that the park was merely a front for condominium development _ was resonating with the public.

An Oct. 26 St. Petersburg Times poll found more than 70 percent of voters supported keeping the airport. Some viewed it as an effective tool for blocking waterfront condominium development, but an even larger percentage wanted to keep the airport for its historical value.

Peter Belmont, chairman of Citizens for a New Waterfront Park, accused airport supporters of dirty politics. He said they were skirting campaign laws by funneling money and political activity through a non-profit, the Albert Whitted Preservation Society, which claimed to be a purely educational organization.

But Darryl Paulson, a USF professor who teaches a class on St. Petersburg politics, said voter confusion ultimately crippled the park movement.

A plan for change must be easily digested by the public, he said. The park proposal, with its multiple clauses and variables, was hard to understand.

"The people who want change haven't done a very good job of summarizing their position on a bumper sticker, so to speak," Paulson said. "It's almost like there was a loss of focus in their campaign."

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With only a few days before the election, opinions are plentiful on Albert Whitted.

"There's a lot of nostalgia there," said Char Cook, 66, who was shopping at BayWalk Thursday afternoon. "What is the airport hurting? They've got enough parks here already."

Kirby Simmons, 55, a St. Petersburg native, called Albert Whitted a city icon.

"It's our history," said Simmons, who was waiting for a bus on Second Ave N. "Besides, they may say it will become a park, but soon there will be condos there and we'll lose a little more of our view of the water."

While it seems likely that airport supporters will win a major victory Tuesday, it may not settle the debate for long.

Mayor Rick Baker, who has been largely silent during the campaign, recently announced his intention to vote "no" on all three ballot questions to give residents more time to decide how the airport land should be used.

He has submitted a plan to close one of the airport's two runways and sell dozens of acres for development. It remains under review by the Federal Aviation Administration, and Baker said he still believes the compromise is the best for the city.

Barton, the city's economic director, is less optimistic about future prospects for development. But he keeps a sketch of his urban village plan in his office, buried behind a stack of blueprints and posterboards.

_ Carrie Johnson can be reached at (727) 892-2273 or cjohnsonsptimes.com.

Albert Whitted by the Numbers:

Year Albert Whitted was founded: 1928

Number of pilots based at the airport: 177

Amount the city paid to subsidize the airport in 2003: $350,000

Number of acres of airport property: 110

Cost per month to rent a shade hangar, or carport-style hangar at Albert Whitted: $195

Cost per month to rent an enclosed hangar: $300-$500

Last fatal crash at Albert Whitted: 1995

The airport is named after Lt. James Albert Whitted, one of St. Petersburg's best known pilots. He was killed in a plane crash near Pensacola in 1923.

Source: City of St. Petersburg and Times files

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