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In 2003, Steve Lange (left) chaired a sign-waving group that met each Friday at a different intersection in the city. (Dirk Shadd/St. Petersburg Times)

The Airport That Wouldn’t Die

An embattled Florida field had more than history on its side.

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.

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.

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