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 3 of 6)
The airport people had no trouble finding their 15,000 signatures. Then, around midnight, just minutes before the October 1 deadline to get the issue before the voters, the airport advisory committee and city council agreed on the wording of the referendum questions and moved the airport to the top of the ballot. The first question asked if the airport should be kept open “forever.” The second, whether the city council should accept FAA grant money without consulting the airport’s neighbors. And the third, whether the airport property should be turned into a park, or divided along the lines the mayor suggested.
Like many people involved in the dispute, Risser is old St. Petersburg. “In 1959, I got my ticket here,” he says. “My dad flew out of here a decade or more before that.” But his perspective is also that of a prominent businessman. “When they started this effort, I thought they were wrong. The ‘forever’ thing. I thought they were really naive in their approach. So I commissioned my own poll. It said they were going to win.”
The Times differed. “One day,” a late-October editorial intoned, “St. Petersburg residents will tire of being denied use of more than 100 acres of public land…. They will tire of Federal Aviation Administration control of such valuable property…. They will tire of a noisy airport that restricts the neighboring university and hospitals, and that presents a growing pubic-safety threat to downtown residents.”
Strong stuff. But by the time the editorial appeared, the park forces, whose message had never quite jelled, had lost momentum. On November 4, 2003, in the biggest municipal voter turnout in 50 years, some 25,000 residents voted with the yellow signs: 72 percent wanted to keep the airport open, 67 percent favored the city’s accepting federal aid, and 78 percent voted against turning the airport into a park.
Howard Troxler, a Times columnist, summed it up: “There never was a clearer election result. The sun was not in anybody’s eyes…. It required 15,000 petition signatures just to get the park idea on the ballot; only 7,783 people actually showed up to vote for it.” Through the fight, Troxler had kept a black-and-yellow pro-airport sign on his office wall.
Bud Risser notes that the voters were not just supporting aviation. Crucial reinforcements came from a “number of other constituencies that had nothing to do with flying,” he says. “One group didn’t want to see high-rise buildings near the waterfront. Another group, in west St. Petersburg, worried that too much emphasis was on downtown.”
It was a resounding victory. “After the election, I looked at every precinct,” Risser says. “The one we didn’t carry, off the south end of the airport, was a 49-51 split. The demographics were everybody.”
To many residents, a vote for the airport was also a vote for preserving important aviation history. Ninety-five years ago, on January 1, 1914, a Benoist XIV flying boat lifted off from the bay front before a cheering crowd and flew the 21 miles across the water to Tampa. It was the world’s first scheduled airline flight. Young pioneer pilot Tony Jannus became the world’s first commercial airline skipper and Mayor Abram C. Pheil the first scheduled-airline passenger. A flying replica of the Benoist, built for the 75th anniversary of the first flight, hangs in the St. Petersburg Museum of History not far from the airport.
James Albert Whitted became the local face of aviation. During World War I, he’d been one of the first pilots in the U.S. Navy, teaching at Pensacola and flying from the improvised carrier Langley. After the war, Albert began designing and building airplanes with his brother Clarence, a talented mechanic. Together, they built two pusher-type seaplanes, the Bluebird and the Falcon.
“My dad was a genius on any kind of engine,” says Eric Whitted, a retired educator who has become keeper of the Whitted brothers legend. Then, as now, flying was great fun, but not necessarily a living. “Albert didn’t have to work,” his nephew explains. “My grandmother owned most of the real estate around Central Avenue.”