All-new airport planned for Panama City, Fla.

 - December 19, 2007, 9:38 AM

Panama City (Fla.) Airport officials must be pinching themselves to see if they’re dreaming. The lucky Florida group has in hand a funded mandate to design and build an entirely new airport on donated land, nearby but well outside the city limits and with the enthusiastic support of environmentalists. The $250 million program is almost through its federal and state permit process (expected to conclude in the first quarter next year), and construction should begin next fall. If all goes according to plan, the new airport should be open for business in late 2008 or early 2009.

Panama City is located at the midpoint of the Florida panhandle coast–an area seeing a huge influx of second-home buyers. According to Ted Clem, executive director of the Bay County economic development alliance, some 3,000 mom-and-pop motel-room units along the shoreline–some dating back to the 1930s–are slated to be replaced by 10,000 condo units, each priced north of the $1 million mark. The area is growing, and the current airport, with its 6,300-foot runway, is not considered capable of supporting the type of prosperity civic leaders expect.

A 1996 project to explore extending the runway into the West Bay met with stiff environmental resistance but led to the current windfall. The city decided not to expand the current 700-acre airport–bound on the west by the bay and on the other three sides by residential development–and, instead, a plan evolved to develop a huge land parcel on the far side of the bay.

The St. Joe Company, a large landholding business that had been in the tree-farming (for paper pulp) business since the 1930s, donated the land. Recent management changes at St. Joe had turned the company in the direction of resort/second-home real-estate development for the area, and company leaders recognized the need for a more capable airport. Also, the current airport’s airspace abuts nearby Tyndall Air Force Base, which has seen an influx of activity recently in support of homeland defense, as well as training for the new F-22 fighter.

The 75,000-acre development parcel (larger than the District of Columbia) includes 4,000 acres for the airport, of which only 1,500 are included in the initial phase of development. More than half of the overall land is dedicated to environmental preservation, including conservation areas and a pine log forest. Since mostly commercial tree-farming sites currently occupy the land, environmentalists are applauding the project as a windfall for wildlife. In addition, large tracts are given over to agricultural/timberland; roads, trails, private and public water access and a marina. According to Clem, the 100-year land use plan has environmentalists applauding shoulder to shoulder with local businesspeople.

Fueling Economic Development
“We also see the development as an economic engine,” Clem told AIN. Included in the layout are provisions for airport and industrial districts; a business center; a regional employment center; a village center and a so-called “low-intensity village.” The airport property itself has planned some 3,500 acres of industrial area targeted to aviation-oriented businesses. Much of that property would have runway access.

Clem said the economic development alliance has received inquiries from defense contractors for homeland defense facilities as well as aircraft maintenance and overhaul businesses and OEMs. “We’ve been talking with about 50 possible tenants and/or land buyers about the airport property,” said Clem. Airport and county officials have been exhibiting at the NBAA Convention for the past few years. They have also been going to international shows such as Paris, Farnborough and, this year, Singapore’s Asian Aerospace, in search of possible airport business tenants.

Two runways are envisioned for the first phase of development: an 8,400-foot (expandable to 12,000-foot) main Runway 16/34 and a 5,000-foot crosswind Runway 3/21. A parallel main runway could be added to the west of the main runway, with terminal facilities and the initial FBOs and corporate hangars in between. The two FBOs at the current airport, Sowell Aviation and Sowell Aircraft Services, have long-term leases and would be invited to establish new facilities on the new airport.

Land values for the existing airport site were assessed at some $30 million, but that was a few years ago. Clem said property values have skyrocketed in Panama City and the prime waterfront property could now be twice as dear. Proceeds from the property sale would go to the development of the new airport and its infrastructure.

Clem said, “This is the first post-9/11 airport project of this size and it looks to be a model for airport security concerns. Starting from scratch with land that used to be tree farms makes this a poster child for environmental and business-development compatibility. So many of the classic airport-area zoning mistakes can be anticipated and avoided. For example, there is a 10,000-foot compatibility zone surrounding the airport where there can be no residential development, cell towers or other development that is not compatible with an airport.”

Unbridled development within noise-sensitive areas surrounding airports has been an increasingly troubling problem nationwide. A recent proposal to approve high-density housing at roughly the middle marker point of the ILS approach to Waterbury-Oxford Airport in Connecticut has airport businesses and tenants on edge. Likewise, the housing development directly under the low approach path to New York Westchester County Airport Runway 34 is another development that manufactures airport enemies among the buyers of upscale houses and condominiums.

With the support of business leaders, environmentalists, residents (old, new and prospective homeowners), the FAA and local politicians, Panama City Airport planners appear to have done all the homework to generate a winner for all concerned.