Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Closing on old airport set for early February

WEST BAY — After months of delays, frustrations and “cautious optimism,” airport officials say they should finally close on the old Panama City airfield in early February.

Airport Authority board attorney Franklin Harrison said Wednesday his team still was working through “a couple of issues” with new owner St. Andrew Bay Land Co., but his earlier “cautious optimism” had now been upgraded to simple optimism, no modifiers attached.

“I see no major problems at all,” Harrison told the board of the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport during its monthly meeting Wednesday.

Once the deal is finally closed, the airport’s financial number crunchers finally can get their hands on at least $51 million of a $56.5 million purchase price that has been held in escrow for years, Harrison said.

The $51 million was the minimum contract price set, an amount that could increase following efforts by airport officials and St. Andrew Bay Land Co. to work through issues such as the final environmental condition of the old 700-acre site. The money is needed to pay back $45 million in loans borrowed through Florida’s State Infrastructure Bank program to help with the construction of the $325 million airport, which officially opened in May 2010.

The closing date was repeatedly delayed as the airfield was prepared for transfer to the new owners — from the first quarter of 2011, to the end of July, then the middle of October.

A 30-day notice of closure finally was sent aiming for Dec. 15, but that was delayed until Feb. 1 when a new amendment was added to the notice. The airport board will hold a special meeting Feb. 3 to add a second amendment adjusting the conditions once again.

“I hope to close the following week, but that’s just Franklin Harrison talking,” Harrison said, adding that St. Andrew Bay Land Co. officials have not been acting from an adversarial position.

Traffic down in December

In other business, airport executive director John Wheat told board members that total airport passenger traffic had declined 5.44 percent during December, or 56,912 passengers compared to 60,186 in December 2010.

The December decline was the result of fewer passengers flying Delta Air Lines, Wheat said. Southwest Airlines, meanwhile, posted December increases of 2.72 percent in enplanements and 3.53 percent in deplanements.

The decline in December air travel was felt throughout the Panhandle’s four airports, Wheat said, with Pensacola Gulf Coast Regional Airport posting a 4.8 percent decline, Northwest Florida Regional Airport in Okaloosa County experiencing a 7.8 percent decline and Tallahassee Regional Airport declining by 6.8 percent.

Board officials also were told that additional sodding and seeding has gone well for the area around the site of a future crosswind runway, work left undone when Phoenix Construction left to sue the board.

Airport vice chairman John Pilcher wanted to know if any plans were afoot for “concrete out there” to finally finish the second runway, but Wheat told him simply, “no.”

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