Aiport in St. Petersburg, Fla. Gets Makeover

This time next year, bare pilings and platforms will have morphed into the showcase feature of a major makeover for city-owned Albert Whitted Airport.

The new $4-million terminal will have a second-floor, aviation-themed restaurant and observation decks, easily visible from First Street S.

Airport boosters see the terminal's visibility and potential public appeal as a way to promote Albert Whitted. Some city officials see it as another in an array of downtown amenities.

"It just gives us another dimension to the city," said City Council member Bill Foster.

Expected to be completed by mid 2007, the 10,600-square-foot terminal is one of several changes on the way. Among them:

- A park next to the airport will be built on what is now a parking area called Lot 51. Named Albert Whitted Park, it will have observation areas and play equipment suggestive of aviation.

- A new $2-million control tower east of the current tower and closer to Tampa Bay will offer better visibility for air traffic controllers.

- Three new helipads are being built near the large hangars, on a grassy area formerly used for aircraft tie-downs.

- Plans continue to collect memorabilia and expand a small aviation museum, which currently shares space with the Albert Whitted Airport Preservation Society at 451 Eighth Ave. SE.

- Hangars will get facelifts. One, known as Hangar 1, is expected to win local landmark status when the City Council votes on Dec. 14. The hangar was National Airlines headquarters from 1934 until 1939.

Dale Del Bello, who owns the Japanese steakhouse Arigato, won the restaurant contract.

He hasn't decided on a menu yet, but said it will include "things that would be familiar, with pricing structure that is reasonable so you get return business."

Del Bello said he will offer discounts to city and airport employees and to college students at the nearby University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

He also hopes to install an aircraft cockpit in the restaurant and place headphones at tables so customers can listen to the control tower.

"We'd like to use the wing of an airplane for a bar," Del Bello said.

The airport activity is welcome, said City Council member Jamie Bennett, although he harbors "a couple of misgivings."

For one thing, Bennett would like a bigger terminal. But overall, he said, "when you consider where we were just three years ago, it's truly a transformation."

In a 2003 referendum, city voters made it clear they wanted to keep Albert Whitted.

The airport's new direction has developed since then.

Among the spark plugs is Terri Griner, president of the Albert Whitted Airport Preservation Society.

The 48-year-old schoolteacher developed a love of airplanes as a child in Erie, Pa., when her uncle introduced her to his Beechcraft.

Griner credits the community for the airport's progress.

"Lots of people have stepped up to the plate," she said.

"Literally thousands" of volunteers have helped with air shows and the museum and pushed for the airport park.

The company that runs much of the airport is Bay Air Flying Service.

Its contract is up next year, but the longtime fixed-based operator is considered a major candidate as city officials sort out proposals.

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