Airport Growing Pains
Northwest Florida's attempt to build a new airport is not out of the woods yet. A court ordered limited construction.
“They just don’t want any growth anywhere,” says airport authority Chairman Joe Tannehill, talking about environmentalists hoping to stop airport construction. [Photo: Ray Stanyard]
In November, proponents of the new Panama City-Bay County International Airport were flying high. After more than a decade of wrangling, officials broke ground on what will be a state-of-the-art airport 20 miles northwest of the city on land donated by St. Joe Co. Less than a month after the ceremony, a New York court ordered construction to stop then reversed itself, allowing limited construction.
The controversy is par for the course for the northwest Florida airport, which has been under discussion since the late 1980s and in the formal planning process since 2000. While opponents cry that the airport, on raw land near State Road 79 and County Road 388, will cause significant environmental damage, business leaders say it is critical to northwest Florida’s real estate, tourism and defense-related industries. “It’s the centerpiece of our economic development plan. It’s the centerpiece of our land-use plan,” says Ted Clem, executive director of the Bay County Economic Development Alliance.
“It’s the centerpiece of our economic development plan. It’s the centerpiece of our land-use plan.” — Ted Clem, executive director, Bay County Economic Development Authorityar [Photo: Ray Stanyard]
Panama City’s current airport, only three miles from downtown, is hemmed in on three sides by residential development and by water on the fourth side. Joe Tannehill, chairman of the Panama City-Bay County Airport Authority, says that the main landing strip does not meet FAA guidelines for length. Environmentalists opposed extending the runway into Goose Bayou in the late 1980s, which led to the idea for a new airport.
The number of flights has dropped off dramatically at the current airport, says Tannehill, and the current facility, which handles about 350,000 passengers a year, is losing 15,000 passengers every month. The airport is one of the most expensive in the state to fly into and out of, serving only Atlanta, Memphis, Orlando and Cincinnati with direct flights. Clem says a priority for the new airport is a direct flight to Washington, D.C., a route that would help the area’s military-related businesses. Along with D.C., New York and Chicago are also high on the list.
The new airport will have an 8,400-foot runway (compared to 6,304 at the current airport), which is permitted for up to 12,000 feet, and a 5,000-foot crosswind runway. There’s also room for a second 8,400-foot runway if needed. Tannehill expects the cost to come in at $312 million to $313 million — less than the $331 million originally slated. The state will pay about $110 million and the FAA $90 million. Much of the rest will come from financing related to the sale of the current airport.
No one needs the new airport more — or has pushed for it harder — than Jacksonville-based St. Joe Co., Florida’s largest private landowner with 800,000 acres, primarily in northwest Florida. In the 1990s, the company embarked on developing more than a dozen residential and resort communities, including WaterColor and WaterSound in Walton County, SouthWood in Leon County and SummerCamp in Franklin County. To help spur development of a new airport, the company donated 4,000 acres of its 75,000-acre West Bay property and, with the support of the National Audubon Society, set aside 40,000 acres for a preservation area. St. Joe wants to develop the property around the new airport with commercial and residential development. Phase one is slated to include 4.4 million square feet of industrial, commercial and retail space, 5,842 residential units, 490 hotel rooms and two marinas.
“With a link to Panama City’s deepwater port, we believe this airport has significant unique competitive advantages and ‘Joe’ is positioned to work with dynamic third-party developers and end users to be operational when the new airport opens,” said St. Joe Chairman and CEO Peter S. Rummell in a statement announcing the airport groundbreaking.
A key for St. Joe is getting the “third-party developers and end users” interested in the property, which necessitates the upgraded airport. St. Joe’s fortunes have fallen dramatically since residential real estate sales began declining in late 2005. For the quarter ended Sept. 30, the company posted a loss of $6.8 million and in early October announced a massive restructuring that includes an increased focus on strategic business partners.
Economic development leaders are counting on St. Joe’s West Bay development to help more than St. Joe. “I think it’s important as far as the region being part of the global economy,” says Port Panama City Executive Director Wayne Stubbs. Bay County economic development authority’s Clem has a more immediate interest. “It’s the ability to create jobs,” he says, citing the 3,000-acre commercial and industrial center adjacent to the airport that is part of St. Joe’s first phase. He sees the airport and the surrounding area as a key economic driver. Says Clem, “It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Bay County citizens.”
Artist renderings show what the terminal will look like.