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Albert Whitted Airport plan for the future to look at extending runway

A small airplane takes off from Albert Whitted Airport recently. The city of St. Petersburg is updating its master plan for the airport. The plan will look at extending the main runway and building new hangers. SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
A small airplane takes off from Albert Whitted Airport recently. The city of St. Petersburg is updating its master plan for the airport. The plan will look at extending the main runway and building new hangers. SCOTT KEELER | Times
Published Jul. 29, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Historically, a lot of conversations about the future of Albert Whitted Airport have jumped off from the idea of closing the airport and building something else on its prime waterfront property.

"Same old story: It's an ideal location," says Jack Tunstill, a longtime Albert Whitted pilot, flight instructor and chairman of the airport's advisory committee. He hears this less than he used to, thanks to a 2003 referendum in which St. Petersburg voters affirmed the airport's future as, well, an airport. Still, the idea comes up once in a while. Mayor Rick Kriseman himself floated it in 2014.

Soon, however, the talk will be less about what else could be developed at Albert Whitted and more about what might be developed nearby. The city-owned and -operated airport is putting together its first master plan since 2005. Two topics are expected to get a lot of attention: extending and shifting the main runway and finding space for more hangars.

The runway in question is known as Runway 7-25, which goes roughly from southwest, near First Street S, to northeast, out over Tampa Bay. It's 3,677 feet long and is used for about 70 percent of the takeoffs and landings at Whitted. Most planes that use it are small, carrying fewer than 10 passengers. But planes that need to use the full length of the runway can be required to reduce their weight — either by carrying less fuel, fewer passengers or both.

Adding 263 feet to the runway would help alleviate that problem, according to a feasibility study that American Infrastructure Development of Tampa did for the city in 2016.

Lengthening the runway, however, is only one possible change. Airport officials also are looking at shifting the runway to the east by 1,257 feet, or nearly a quarter mile. That would entail dredging and filling an area of Tampa Bay beyond the current eastern end of the runway at an estimated cost of $13.25 million to $15 million.

But airport officials say doing so could create development opportunities just beyond the western end of the runway, near First Street S. That's because shifting the runway eastward would allow the airport to move its "runway protection zone," a cone-shaped area that stretches beyond the end of the runway, onto the airport's property.

Currently, that protection zone is largely over the campus of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, and it limits how tall USF can build. Moving the zone onto airport property, airport manager Richard Lesniak says, could create new development potential to the west.

USF St. Petersburg likes that idea.

"We are very excited about the opportunities presented by the proposal to extend and shift the main runway at Albert Whitted Airport," regional chancellor Martin Tadlock said in a statement. "The runway extension could benefit USF St. Petersburg in two important ways. First and foremost is safety, which is a top priority for our university. Secondly, by lifting the height restrictions, it could give us the opportunity to expand vertically — a significant advantage in a city where space is at a premium."

Early last year, GAI Consultants of Orlando estimated for the city that shifting the runway could create up to $392 million a year from a combination of direct new spending on things like wages and indirect spending, such as when workers or businesses spend that new revenue on other things.

Sound like a lot? It's a long-range projection. It's also one that assumes the maximum amount of potential new or re-development and a huge influx of lucrative professional jobs. The consultants broke it down like this:

• Removing the protection zone limitations outside the airport could allow buildings, mostly on the USF campus and now just one or two stories tall, to be replaced by three- to 10-story buildings, expanding the total square footage available from 202,655 square feet to 830,225 square feet. That, the consultants estimated, would create space for 1,800 new workers. GAI Consultants said those new employees could bring a nearly $208 million increase in economic activity. The firm also estimates that those new jobs, which is assumes would "most likely" be professional, management, scientific, technical or consulting, would indirectly lead to the creation of another 1,320 jobs in everything from food service to real estate and health care, and another $174 million in spending.

• The size of aircraft using the airport would not be expected to change, but the type of trip they made might. With a longer runway, planes could take off with more weight, allowing them to plan for longer flights and making the airport more attractive to corporate jets. Shifting the runway also could make 3 acres on airport property available for operations growth. With some new hangar space, airport operations could be expected to grow 5 percent as a result of the change to the runway, consultants said.

• The airport would also become more attractive to new aviation providers, such as non-scheduled charters. A previous proposal for that kind of service at the airport anticipated 16 arrivals and 16 departures a week, serving about 1,500 passengers a year and generating $6 million to $7 million in economic activity. (Tampa International Airport, by comparison, estimates the economic impact of a new international flight at more than $100 million a year.)

For the master plan, airport officials also will look at adding hangars. About 75 percent of the 180 aircraft based at the airport now have a spot in a hangar. Another 70 owners are on a waiting list.

Some new hangars could go on the 8 acres that's now home to the city's closed waste water treatment plant — if Mayor Kriseman decides to close it permanently. But that's an open question. The City Council voted to close the sewage treatment plant at Albert Whitted in 2011. The Kriseman administration carried out the plan in 2015. In the year that followed, the city's three remaining treatment plants were swamped, and the system released up to 1 billion gallons of waste water, with a fifth of it going to Tampa Bay. Now the plant is available with 10 million gallons of emergency storage capacity, and City Hall is working on a master plan for the waste water system, which is expected to cost $326 million to fix. That plan is expected to help determine the fate of the treatment plant at the airport.

The potential impact of sea level rise likely will get looked at as part of a review of sustainability and resiliency at the airport, which sees occasional airfield flooding.

The airport will hold an open house at Harbour Hall at USF St. Petersburg from 5 to 7 p.m. on Wednesday where anyone will have a chance to share their thoughts or learn more about the airport. The master plan is expected to take about a year to finish.

"The intent here is to improve the operations of the airport, its viability as a destination for both business and recreational fliers," Tunstill says. "We're not talking about commercial airlines coming in."

Meanwhile, Kriseman isn't talking about redeveloping the airport anymore.

"For as long as the airport is viable, he wants to see it optimized," Kevin King, the mayor's policy chief, said in an email. "He would like to see the runway expansion occur, if possible. He thinks the airport has the potential to catalyze future economic development."

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Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times

IF YOU GO

What: Open house updating the city of St. Petersburg's 20-year airport development program for Albert Whitted Airport.

When: 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday. There's no formal program, so residents can visit anytime during the open house to learn about the process and share their thoughts.

Where: Community room, Harbor Hall, University of South Florida St. Petersburg, 1000 Third St. S.

More information: albertwhittedmasterplan.com

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