Asked why a developer should be allowed to build a large resort on one of the largest undeveloped waterfront tracts in Sarasota County, city leaders have increasingly pointed their fingers at the Federal Aviation Administration.
In pamphlets, e-mails and interviews, they note that the agency requires the city's airport to charge a "fair market rate" for land leases and to be "financially self-sustainable."
Indeed, city officials often describe commissioning the development of a luxury marine, golf and aviation resort at the airport as a necessary product of those FAA directives. Developing the land is necessary to pay for expensive airport upgrades, city officials have said.
But in interviews this week, FAA officials painted a far different picture of the agency's influence over the city's choice to build a resort on 451 prime waterfront acres bounded by the Intracoastal Waterway and Caspersen Beach.
FAA officials say they leave it to local authorities to decide how an airport should grow and whether it should develop unused land. And while airports are expected to sustain themselves, falling short of that is "very rare," officials said.
Essentially, airports are expected to pay their own operating costs, though not necessarily to pay for "major repairs" and "future development," for which the FAA said they encourage small airports to apply for multimillion-dollar federal grants.
"We are not necessarily expecting Venice and other airports to go out and develop business parks and resorts," said Rusty Chapman, manager of the Southern Region of the Federal Aviation Administration. "We're not telling them to do that."
To be sure, city leaders have offered other reasons why developing the airport property might be worthwhile. A marine, aviation and golf resort would add docking facilities and hotel rooms to a region drastically short of both.
Moreover, it would likely boost tourism, while pumping millions into the city's economic engine. By one developer's estimate: $439,000 annually to the city, 1,589 jobs and $32 million in wages.
Since the early 1980s, the city has sought to develop unused portions of its airport property. The last attempt, made three years ago, failed when each developer came forward with plans for condominiums, all of which city officials rejected. Officials feared that the jet noise would be a bad mix with residential space.
But as plans now turn to a multimillion-dollar resort, opposition to airport development has only grown more vocal. Addressing the growing volume of complaints, City Councilman John Simmonds clarified the role of the FAA at Tuesday's City Council meeting.
"The FAA is not saying that we have to generate funds at the airport," Simmonds said. "The FAA has said that we have to generate funds at the airport to maintain a financially stable operation."
But just what does "financially stable" mean? The airport's commerce park development plan estimates that a $6.4 million investment in pavement, sewage and water lines could yield a $14.6 million return that would "allow the airport to profit significantly," the report states.
That would make the airport far less reliant on federal grants for support. This year, for example, the city is waiting to hear whether it will win more than $5 million to perform extensive runway maintenance.
If the grant goes through, the money will have paid more than 90 percent of the cost -- something the city could not afford under its current budget, said Marty Black, city manager.
"If it doesn't, there is no money in the airport fund to do that," Black said.
But Black said the airport is not operating in the red. "Is there money to keep the lawn mowed and the lights on? Yes," Black said.
The airport could protect itself against federal cuts to general aviation grants by seeking to generate the cash to pay for major repairs and upgrades.
But going that far is not required, FAA officials said.
In fact, small airports such as Venice's are encouraged to apply for grants for major repairs, Chapman said. Those applicants will not be judged on how effectively they squeeze profit out of their acreage, Chapman said, provided that any land that is leased is rented at fair market value.
What's new: FAA officials distanced themselves from the city's controversial plan to develop a marina and resort on airport property, calling it a local decision.
The story so far: City officials listened Wednesday to five developers' proposals to build a resort on some or all of 451 acres at the Venice airport.
What's next: A committee of city officials meets behind closed doors Wednesday to discuss narrowing down the list of developers. Eventually, the City Council will select one developer who will be required to host a series of public workshops to modify his plans as residents see fit.
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