Wednesday, November 30, 2016

National Oceanic and Aeronautic Administration Hurricane Hunters moving staff, fleet of planes to Lakeland Linder Regional Airport

LAKELAND — Scientific sorties into tropical cyclones will launch from Lakeland Linder Regional Airport starting next year.

The National Oceanic and Aeronautic Administration Hurricane Hunters weather squadron will be moving its staff of about 100 and fleet of nine aircraft — including its modified P-3 Orions "Kermit" and "Miss Piggy" — to Lakeland Linder after May 1, the city announced Wednesday.

For NOAA, the deal supplies a nearby base of operations after the Air Force chose not to continue its current arrangement at MacDill Air Force Base after next year.

In exchange, Lakeland Linder gains a high-profile tenant — and a major boost to its annual revenues that will help it fund and market its bid to become a major center for high-skill and high-wage jobs in the county.

"This is probably one of our most significant wins over the last ten to twenty years," Airport Manager Gene Conrad said. St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport also bid for the contract.

NOAA will pay Lakeland Linder about $6.8 million to lease the Airside Center at 3450 Flightline Drive — roughly 105,000 square feet of space — for five years. The contract includes an optional extension that would yield $5.8 million through the second five-year term.

This is roughly three times what the airport was earning per square foot from the previous lease, which ended when the company was evicted for not paying rent. It's also about a 15 percent jump for the airport's total annual revenues. The airport sustains itself from its own business revenues, not taxes.

"This type of lease opportunity is rare and the long term significance of being awarded the contract is far greater than just the rental revenue that LLRA will receive," the city's staff wrote to commissioners in a memo, encouraging them to accept the deal.

City Manager Tony Delgado, who started his career in the live entertainment business, said landing the NOAA Hurricane Hunters is the equivalent of a "prestige account," the kind of act with a reputation that will draw more interest to the facility.

The Air Force declining to keep NOAA on its base created the opportunity, but Lakeland Linder was prepared when it arose, Conrad said.

"A lot had to occur to make this happen."

Without Lakeland Linder's long runway, a new air traffic control tower and an aircraft rescue and firefighting facility on its edge, "NOAA wouldn't be here," he said.

Grants from state and federal transportation authorities — and a willingness by the City Commission to support ambitious projects — have enabled about $100 million in improvements at the airport since 2010.

"We've finally turned the corner in people's minds," Delgado said, and they are now seeing Lakeland Linder as an "economic driver."

About 1,000 are employed in high-skill, high-wage jobs in businesses on the airport property, Conrad said. Roughly half of those work in the aviation sector. The NOAA contract will add another 100 aviation-sector jobs, plus the city expects contractors and suppliers that work with the squadron may eventually look to relocate as well.

And outside that supply chain, "growth will always attract growth," said John Von Preysing, the airport's business manager.

The aviation education pipeline on the south side of the airport, with Polk State College and the Central Florida Aerospace Academy, also makes a strong argument for aviation companies to move to Lakeland, Von Preysing added.

Pursuing the NOAA contract was somewhat of a gamble for the airport.

When NOAA announced its need for a new airbase, the city took funds it had appropriated for the MRO facility and poured them into its Airside Center in the hopes of landing the federal contract.

"By investing in an existing facility, it allowed us to accelerate growth," Von Preysing said.

"It was just one of those risks you had to take," Delgado added.

With the contract secured, Lakeland Linder will use the profits to continue developing a new, large maintenance facility on the north side of the airport. The planned "MRO facility," for maintenance, repair and overhaul, will accommodate mainline commercial passenger jets.

If built out as initially planned, the MRO facility could add another 300 to 400 technical jobs to the airport. Conrad and airport executives have been actively courting suitable businesses, but have remained quiet about the details of those conversations.

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