$120 Million For Airport: Necessity Or Waste?

Oct. 3--PANAMA -- CITY, Fla. -- Only 13 commercial flights leave the Panama City-Bay County International Airport every day. Passengers walk out onto the tarmac to board 74-passenger turboprops that deliver them to Atlanta or some other airline...


Oct. 3--PANAMA -- CITY, Fla. -- Only 13 commercial flights leave the Panama City-Bay County International Airport every day.

Passengers walk out onto the tarmac to board 74-passenger turboprops that deliver them to Atlanta or some other airline hub. The airport's control tower closes at 10 p.m.

That's expected to change now that nearly $200 million in state and federal funding is being used to build a new airport that could become a destination for major airlines and a selling point for future development on thousands of surrounding acres owned by the politically connected St. Joe Co.

Once a titan in the paper mill industry, Jacksonville-based St. Joe now creates housing developments and stands to benefit greatly from the increased value of the land once the new airport is built.

That has outraged some long-time residents and environmentalists who have fought the plan at every step.

"The state of Florida is having to cut budgets and yet they're giving millions of dollars on this airport that nobody wants or needs," said Jimmy Long, a longtime Bay County resident who for decades has hunted near the proposed airport site.

Barring a successful last-minute legal challenge, the new airport will rise from pine forests and wetlands 20 miles from downtown Panama City. The $330 million project has received all its environmental and aviation permits, and the first commercial jetliner could fly off a new 8,400-foot runway in less than three years.

'Shoved Down Throats'

Although Florida lawmakers are grappling with a $1.1 billion budget deficit, it hasn't slowed the flow of state transportation dollars to the Panama City airport project. The state has given the airport $32.7 million for a feasibility study, an airport master plan and an environmental mitigation plan.

The remaining $87.3 million will be approved in phases as construction proceeds, said Bill Ashbaker, who manages the aviation trust fund for the state Department of Transportation. Each payout must be approved by the Legislature.

Federal Aviation Administration officials also are backing construction of the $330 million airport with $72 million in grants. The agency earlier had rejected grant applications, saying the project would provide few aviation benefits.

Although the total airport property will consist of 4,000 acres, the actual airport footprint will be 1,400 acres. It will have one runway, eight gates and a terminal building of about 105,000 square feet. By comparison, Tampa International has three runways, 59 gates and a terminal with more than a million square feet.

The airport remains controversial in Bay County, where hundreds of residents recently gathered at the local community college to protest escalating property taxes. Voters rejected building a new airport in a nonbinding referendum in March 2004.

"This thing's being shoved down our throats by the St. Joe Co. and the Chamber of Commerce," said Diane Brown, a longtime airport opponent. "That's a lot to fight when you don't have much money to get your word out."

The state grant money for the airport comes from taxes on aviation fuel. Ashbaker, with the state transportation department, calls the tax a "user fee."

"There have been concerns expressed that our taxpayer dollars have been going for" the airport, Ashbaker said. "Well if you fly, your taxpayer dollars are going for that. If you're not flying, they're not."

The local airport authority hopes to raise $60 million for the project by selling the existing 700-acre airport on waterfront property near downtown Panama City. The rest of the money will come from borrowing and cash reserves.

St. Joe Makes Case

The quest for a new airport began in 1998 when the airport authority proposed extending its runway to 8,400 feet by filling in part of St. Andrews Bay. State and local environmental groups blocked the plan, saying the extension would destroy important seagrass beds.

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