ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Kriseman recently told the Tampa Bay Times that he thought Albert Whitted Airport, home to about 200 planes, wasn't the best use of so much valuable waterfront land.
But he remembers the will of 75 percent of voters, who in 2003 decided to change the city charter to perpetually preserve space for aviation on 110 acres of pricey downtown real estate.
Now, as the city goes about crafting a new master plan for its waterfront, however, the airport is facing renewed scrutiny.
Kriseman said he wouldn't lead a charge to close it but was curious about how many residents — many of whom didn't live in St. Petersburg a decade ago — feel about the airport now. He's hopeful that public participation in the waterfront plan will shed light on the issue.
Kriseman's comments rankled Jack Tunstill, who teaches flying at Albert Whitted and led the fight to save the airport a decade ago.
"We're not happy the mayor is making those sorts of comments," said Tunstill, chairman of the airport's advisory committee.
The airport creates jobs and is an attractive lure for corporate titans who like the idea of a downtown airport, he said.
A terminal building with its popular dining spot, the Hangar Restaurant and Flight Lounge, are post-referendum improvements that have added public value to the waterfront. And don't forget, he said, that airport land was used to build the Dalí Museum.
"We've done our part," Tunstill said.
Not everyone agrees.
Everything on the waterfront should be up for discussion, including Albert Whitted, said Chris Steinocher, president and CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.
"Some people think it's a fait accompli, that it's always going to be there. But we can't think like that. It's not a cemetery, it's not like you can't move those bones," Steinocher said.
The chamber doesn't have an official position on the airport, he said, but St. Petersburg is a different city than it was in 2003. He noted a chamber demographic study that showed that 50 percent of the city's current residents didn't live here 20 years ago.
"I get nervous when people say we can't talk about this," he said.
Closing Albert Whitted wouldn't be easy.
It would require a vote, and a solution to at least $14 million in state and federal grants obtained with assurances the airport would remain open for 20 more years.
The city couldn't simply pay them back. Instead, it involves a lengthy federal process with no preordained outcome, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Still, Steinocher said, paying off the loans is a process worth investigating.
"Is that an urban legend that controls our destiny? Let's study that," he said.
Other people don't want to spend the political capital on a matter they think has already been decided.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
"We had a pretty ugly, pretty vigorous fight over that and the vote was pretty overwhelming," said council member Karl Nurse, whose district covers much of the waterfront. "I would be surprised if the idea of not having the airport there has any legs."
Dave Goodwin, the city's director of planning and economic development, has attended nearly all the waterfront plan's public input sessions, walking audits and stakeholder meetings. He hasn't seen a groundswell building for getting rid of the airport.
If anything, it's underutilized, he said. Opportunities exist to integrate it with the fledgling "Innovation District" of nearby hospitals and the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
One constant during the past month of waterfront meetings surfaced Friday night — what to do about nearly 9 acres on the airport's southern edge. A city wastewater treatment plant will soon close, freeing the land.
Airport advocates want additional hangar space. At Friday's meeting, about 20 residents also offered ideas, including an outdoor concert venue.
A 2013 study by the Urban Land Institute concluded that the airport was a barrier to the flow of the city's waterfront, essentially separating the northern and southern portions.
Several residents suggested a walking path around the bay edge of the airport — a notion struck down by airport manager Richard Lesniak, who said it was unfeasible given the proximity of the runways.
In 2013, the airport had 97,000 takeoffs and landings, making it one of the busiest general aviation airports in the Tampa Bay area. Clearwater Airpark had 52,000, and Tampa's Peter O. Knight Airport recorded 68,000.
The airport no longer costs the city money. During the recession, the airport borrowed nearly $3 million from the city. The airport has started to repay the loans, including $220,400 this year.
The airport is on track to bring in $1.1 million in revenue next year — about $26,000 more than projected expenses for fiscal year 2015.
If the city wants to look at a financial "black hole," then the neighboring port should be scrutinized, said Ed Montanari, an airport advisory board member.
"Instead of getting sidetracked on the airport, spend some time envisioning what can be done with the port," he said.
Two recent plane crashes, however, have refocused attention on Albert Whitted. A fatal crash in August of a banner-towing plane into Tampa Bay was followed last week by another crash into Vinoy Park, injuring the pilot and three passengers.
Those crashes worry Nurse, who said the FAA and the city need to rethink building heights and other safety measures.
The crashes came up during Friday's meeting, but no one suggested shutting down the airport.
A better option would be to use it as a "land bank," for the short and medium term until a consensus can be reached about its future, said Constance Price, who lives near Lassing Park.
"The whole airport needs more discussion," she said. "There is a tendency for it to be hushed."
Contact Charlie Frago at email@example.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago