Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Collier, Florida: Officials discuss future of county's three airports

An aircraft taxis down the new taxiway. On Friday morning, about 200 people gathered at the Marco Island Executive Airport to cut the ribbon on a $7 million taxiway upgrade giving the airport safer and more efficient operations. 
Lance Shearer/Daily News

Collier County leaders held a workshop Tuesday to discuss the future of the county's three airports, with critics saying they are financial drag and supporters saying the airports are community assets worth the investment.

However, few decisions were made at the 3-hour workshop, which included Collier commissioners, the county's Airport Authority Advisory Board and staff.

The discussion kicked off when Commissioner Georgia Hiller asked the advisory board members what they believe the plan for the airports should be. Collier County maintains airports in Immokalee, Marco Island and Everglades City.

She spoke of different options the county could consider, including having the county manager's office take over the airports or selling them.

If the county sold its airports, the airports would no longer be eligible for federal funds, which require a government entity to sponsor those grants, said Jim Murray, vice chairman of the advisory board. Losing a government sponsor could lead the FAA to come after the county for grant money the FAA had spent in Collier County, he said.

Michael Klein, chairman of the airport advisory board, said the airports are part of the county's infrastructure and the county has a responsibility to residents to take care of that infrastructure. Supporters of the airports say they bring people into the community who spend money.

Commissioner Tim Nance said he agreed that the airports are of value to the community and that they generate money into the local economy.

"The Immokalee Airport is a diamond, but that diamond is now 71," he said. "It is discussed with affection, but we have no strategic method to move it forward."

Discussion about the Immokalee airport dominated workshop. That airport has been a source of tension between county staff and tenants over changes staff has made on the property.

Commissioner Tom Henning spoke about the need for efficiencies at the Immokalee airport. The airport has $20 million in debt recognized by the board, he said.

Chris Curry, the executive director of the airport authority, said small airports like those under the county's control rarely turn a profit. The debt, he said, is considered a cost of business.

Nance said it is time for everyone to get on the same page.

"We've made a commitment to Mr. Curry and Mr. Curry has made a commitment to us," Nance said. "But he told me, and it is very telling, that, 'When I don't have clear direction from the board, I do what I think is best.' I think we need to examine why he doesn't have board direction."


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