Tampa's airport authority and Leading Edge Aviation turn a private strip into a first-class GA airport
BY John F. Infanger, editorial director
November / December 1999
TAMPA — It's been a number of years in the making, but Tampa's new primary reliever, Vandenberg Airport, is now poised to burst onto the corporate and general aviation scene. The crowning achievement in this 18-year effort was the completion in October of the $4.8 million terminal building, which has as its primary tenant Leading Edge Aviation Services, Inc.
"Our research says we're sitting on top of a gold mine here," says Mark Moberg, president of Leading Edge, the company charged with helping what is essentially a new airport reach its potential. And everyone involved with the project agrees that the potential is tremendous.
Adds Ed Cooley, director of general aviation for the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority (HCAA), "If you looked at a map and wanted to put a dart in the center, you'd probably hit Vandenberg. It's right in the growth area of the county where we expect office, warehousing, and distribution development. So, we see Vandenberg becoming even more important."
Vandenberg is located in the center of the Interstate 4/75 corridor east of downtown Tampa, an area that is currently undergoing significant business growth.
Explains Moberg, "We see a huge influx of small to medium sized corporations moving into the area. We've been very involved with the Tampa development councils and with the Chambers of Commerce to find out who's looking at Tampa. We've followed through on that to find out of those companies, how many of them operate corporate aircraft, what size, what type. And, almost all of them have either King Air-type or Citation-type aircraft.
"In addition to that, we have all the growth at Tampa International, where Raytheon has a waiting list for the type of aircraft we need to store here. Those people are in the process of being contacted."
Vandenberg is also seen as a complement to the other Tampa GA facilities, Peter O. Knight and Plant City Airports, also operated by HCAA, according to Cooley.
Rebuilding a Private Airport
The new airport is actually a total refurbishment of a private facility formerly owned by George Vandenberg. As part of the sale, the authority agreed to keep the Vandenberg name for at least 20 years.
"What we did was bought an existing airport and built a new airport adjacent to it," says Cooley. "It is now capable of handling corporate jets." A new 5,000x100-ft. runway was constructed and the existing 3,200-ft. (now 3,260-ft.) runway was rehabilitated.
The process for acquiring Vandenberg began in 1981, explains Cooley, when HCAA performed a site selection study to determine where a fourth public airport should be located.
"We looked at various airports," recalls Cooley, who has been with the project since the beginning. "It was recommended that we buy and convert Vandenberg. It was already busy, had air space established, and was well placed in terms of the future growth area of the county.
Vandenberg, encompassing 105 acres, was acquired in 1985 for $4.8 million. Since that time, the authority has acquired an additional 300 acres, purchasing 67 parcels of land and relocating 50 families.
Explains Cooley, "We did a short-range and a long-range master plan. The airport, overall, when it was acquired was not up to public standards. The runway wasn't in real good condition; hangars were in poor condition. So at first there was a five-year transition plan.
"With the long-range plan, the prospect of a new runway came into play, as did the land acquisition. The late ’80s really saw that aspect of the plan develop.
"It has evolved exactly into what was originally perceived."
Total investment in Vandenberg is $37.6 million, according to Cooley, a sum that includes land acquisitions. Of that, $25.7 million came from the federal Airport Improvement Program through 23 different grants. The state DOT has invested $5 million, including half the cost of the new terminal, while the authority has dedicated $7 million through its capital expenditure budget — not including costs related to maintenance and operations.
As with most any project in Florida, wetlands mitigation was an ongoing challenge. Stormwater runoff was a heightened concern as well, with a bypass canal that serves as a regional source for drinking water running through the airport's property. In all, five designated wetland mitigation areas totaling some 34 acres were established. And, subsequently, the Southwest Florida Water Management District awarded HCAA its Resource Regulation Design Excellence Award for its wetlands mitigation efforts.
Leading Edge Aviation
The 46,000-sq. ft. terminal building will house Leading Edge Aviation Services, the fixed base operator, with corporate amenities and pilot briefing necessities. There is 3,000 square feet of office space for corporate and business subtenants, and Leading Edge has put into place the infrastructure for most turbine aircraft maintenance needs.
The FBO is operated by Mark and David Moberg, with Mark concentrating on managing the overall operation based on his experience with Hawthorne Aviation, and David serving as vice president in charge of aircraft sales, flight training, and Part 135 on-demand charter.
Explains Mark Moberg, "We want to provide a level of service comparable to Tampa International. We have some people interested in coming to work with us who have turbine maintenance experience. Another option is to sublease space for a tenant to provide services such as turbine maintenance, avionics, etc."
A new 30,000-gallon fuel farm has been installed, split evenly between avgas and jet-A. Mark Moberg says the company has averaged some 300,000 in fuel sales annually, but he projects jet-A will jump to 100,000 gallons itself with the opening of the new facility. "It will skew everything," he says.
The Mobergs had been operating the Vandenberg FBO and were in year six of a ten-year lease. That lease expires with occupancy of the new terminal, says Cooley, and a new 10-year lease begins. Leading Edge pays a five cent/gallon fuel flow fee, 50 percent of hangar storage fees, and 88 percent of leased office space — getting 12 percent for overhead costs.
Cooley explains that Leading Edge's track record of providing FBO services led to the authority negotiating with the incumbent for the new terminal lease, rather than putting out an RFP. "They did submit a business plan, which became part of the agreement," he says. "It includes their investment for marketing and how they will develop and staff the business."
Regarding the authority, Moberg, who also is current president of the Florida Aviation Trades Association, comments, "The authority and this airport manager, in particular, are the best I've seen in terms of working as a management team to accomplish the goal of providing services to the users. It's never a battle. For example, with the displacement of our maintenance facility (due to construction), we went to them and said we were losing sales as a result. They responded, ’Tell us what your losses are and we can work something out.' Well, they did, and gave us a rebate for a period of time."