The Airport That Wouldn’t Die
An embattled Florida field had more than history on its side.
- By Carl Posey
- Photographs by Mike Ramos
- Air & Space magazine, August 2009
Dirk Shadd/St. Petersburg Times
(Page 2 of 6)
In St. Petersburg, any change in the way waterside property is used requires an amendment to the city charter, via a referendum vote. To get the issue on the ballot, proponents must submit a petition signed by at least 10 percent of the voters from the last municipal election. By August 2003, the Citizens for a New Waterfront Park had the necessary 15,000 signatures and a secure place on the November ballot.
“It looked like they would win,” recalls Jack Tunstill, a longtime flight instructor who became one of the generals in the airport war. Now, against what seemed long odds, the airport side fired back. Almost overnight, yellow-and-black signs calling for citizens to support Whitted bloomed like fields of daffodils across Pinellas County. Randy York put a big one in the bed of his pickup and drove it around St. Petersburg. The Advertising Air Force, a company that flies banner advertisements, towed “Save Albert Whitted” signs from its airplanes for free. Money flowed in from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which established a political action committee and paid for a consultant.
A potent community outreach effort got under way. Terri Griner, a petite kindergarten teacher who has a longtime involvement in local politics and a soft spot for aviation, became its mainspring. “We were very upset,” she says. “We asked people to join. We did the name [the Albert Whitted Airport Preservation Society], the logo, and everything right there on that dining room table. We began with three board members. Now it’s up to about 2,000 folks. Everybody in the community helped. We had a big meeting in the Marine Science Building and 300 people showed up. It was awesome.” Then they arranged a 75th anniversary airshow in October that wowed everybody, and earned money for the cause.
Bud Risser, who is on the airport advisory committee and owns a Piper Malibu Mirage and co-owns an Eclipse 500 light jet, recalls some of the council meetings: “One of the people there was a good-looking young black guy. He said, ‘I used to ride my bike to the airport to watch the planes. I’m now an airline captain.’ A woman said, ‘I’ve never flown in a plane, but I’ve taken my children, my grandchildren, and I will take my greats, to the airport.’ ”
St. Petersburg became bitterly divided. The airport backers dismissed their opponents as shills for developers. The park people said they were offering a better use of valuable land and that the talk about high-rises was bunk.
The University of South Florida, already bursting at the seams with students, wanted the east-west runway closed so the school could build taller buildings. So did Bayfront Medical Center, All Children’s Hospital, and the Poynter Institute, which is owned by the St. Petersburg Times. But any changes in how the property was used needed approval by both the Florida Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration, which effectively owns the runways. Anything done to extend a runway into the bay would bring in the Army Corps of Engineers, as well as state and federal environmental agencies.
James Bennett, chair of the St. Petersburg city council and also a pilot, contacted the FAA, which, he says, “had stopped funding [the airport]. It was in disrepair. When you take money from the federal government, you’re tied in for 20 years. The city had received tons of money from the FAA over the years,” so if the airport were reduced or closed, “we would have [had] to pay that money back.”
Mayor Rick Baker offered an alternative: Leave the airport with a single north-south runway, 18-36, extend it a few hundred feet into the bay, and sell off about 30 acres for development. A few pilots went along. “The idea was, they’re going to close the airport and there’s nothing we can do about it,” Tunstill recalls. But while the mayor’s idea served nearby property owners, it did nothing for the two main combatants. The park people would get nothing, and the airport would lose its long runway. Absent any compromise, the conflict settled into a winner-take-all contest at the ballot box that fall.