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Hernando airport critic turns airport contractor

Hernando County Commission awards airport self-fueling station contract at Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport.
Flight student taxis on the runway at the Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport. [LUIS SANTANA | [Luis Santana | Times]]

BROOKSVILLE — For years, hobbyist and small airplane operators of the Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport have pined for a less expensive and more convenient option for buying aviation fuel.

That hope became a reality last week when the Hernando County Commission approved a lease for Sentinel Fuel Services to take over the newly-constructed self-fueling station at the airport. The operator of Sentinel is Robert Rey, a familiar player in discussions about airport development and owner of the aircraft management company Jet Concepts.

Rey has been one of many to raise questions about whether the airport has shown favoritism to its fixed-base operator, American Aviation. Two years ago, Rey tussled with the county over a batch of hangars at the airport that American Aviation also wanted.

Piston-airplane operators have complained that American Aviation had some of the priciest full-service airplane fuel around and begged the county to offer a self-service option.

County commissioners spent nearly $100,000 exploring the idea and secured $1 million in grant money to pay for it. But the County Commission majority changed in 2018 with the departure of Nick Nicholson, and the new majority shelved the project. Commissioner John Allocco was especially unhappy with the idea, saying it was not profitable under even the best circumstances.

Airport grant money could be better used, he argued.

In early 2019, the project got new life when politically-influential realtor Gary Schraut, who was a flashpoint for critics when he chaired the Hernando County Aviation Authority, urged commissioners to change their minds.

Rejecting the self-fueling project so far into its development would be a “black mark” against the state Department of Transportation official who helped Hernando County get the grant, Schraut said. The state agency has funded millions of dollars in improvements at the airport over the years.

The county should build the facility, Schraut argued, but hire someone else to run it. That prompted commissioners to put out a bid request for a self-fueling operator.

In December, the county received two unsolicited offers to run the station. One was from Sentinel and the other was from a cooperative of pilots at the airport. A third unsolicited bid from Pilot Country Airport X05 in Pasco County came in January, but was rejected because the county had closed bidding. An internal bid evaluation committee determined that Rey’s was the most favorable offer.

Sentinel gets a five-year license to operate the 12,000-gallon storage tanks. The company will pay the county $4,000 for the first year, with fees that escalate annually until they reach $5,000 in the fifth year.

Allocco said he was glad to see the project moving ahead. Officials said that less expensive fuel offered by a private company would be draw to the airport.

"I’m just delighted that it’s not government,'' said Commission Chairman John Mitten.

Rey said last week that he was he was finishing up the final details and would open the self-fueling station quickly.

Much of the debate at the airport has centered around competition with American Aviation, Rey said, but his real goal is to be competitive with surrounding small airports that have been offering less expensive so-called “avgas” in recent years.

"Our competition is not the local FBO (fixed base operator, American Aviation), but the regional pricing,'' he said. "We’re planning a pricing structure that is strong for the region and not just the local pilots.''

The self-fueling station is on the east side of the airport, near U.S. 41 and the 84 Lumber business.

Rey said he is happy to take on the project.

"I’m just glad to see that the airport is opening up to other people,'' he said. "I think the lesson that is really learned from this on all sides is that progress is going to happen one way or another.''