Two Names Surface as Orlando Airport Seeks New Chief

Jan. 28--One week after Bill Jennings announced his resignation as executive director of Orlando International Airport, a pair of high-profile names has generated buzz among community leaders.

But former Secretary of State Glenda Hood and Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Denver Stutler on Friday dismissed such talk and brushed off speculation about their futures.

"Rumors are rumors," said Jeffry Fuqua, chairman of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority.

And so it goes in the search for the next chief of Orlando International, the state's busiest airport and a driving force in the area's tourism economy.

Jennings, 58, had long said he would retire by 2008, but he surprised staff members and local leaders last Friday when he said he would step down officially in April after 30 years at the airport. He said he moved up the date because of family issues.

Several executive recruiting firms have submitted proposals to lead the authority's months-long national search for a replacement. A selection of a firm is likely next month.

In the meantime, there's a lot of talk among area political and business leaders about who might -- or should -- land the job, one of the most coveted in Central Florida for its high-profile status, power and fat paycheck.

Stutler, who has ties to Orlando, said he's planning to stay in Tallahassee for now.

"I am committed to the agenda we have here at DOT and staying through the governor's term," he said.

Gov. Jeb Bush will leave office in January 2007.

Still, local decision-makers offered words of support for Stutler, a former chief of staff for the governor.

Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty, a member of the aviation authority, said he would consider Stutler a potential "strong contender."

Stutler graduated from the University of Central Florida with a civil engineering degree and served as student body president. He worked as an engineer at the Orlando office of Camp Dresser and McKee Inc., an international environmental engineering firm.

His predecessor at the Department of Transportation, Jose Abreu, became the executive director of Miami International Airport last summer, and Bush appointed Stutler to take his place.

Hood, who served as Orlando's mayor from 1992 to 2003, also surfaced in several circles as a potential candidate. But she said Friday that she "hasn't expressed any interest" in the job.

"I haven't had any conversations with anyone," said Hood, who returned to Orlando from Tallahassee last fall when she resigned as secretary of state.

Authority chairman Fuqua said "it would be inappropriate for me to comment" on any potential candidates.

Fuqua, who named a search committee last year after Jennings announced that he would retire by 2008, appointed Deputy Executive Director Steve Gardner to serve as the interim director.

Gardner said he will not apply for the permanent job.

Jennings, who earns $251,000 a year, is the OIA's longest-serving executive director. His retirement comes during a period of major transition for the airport.

Long a force in Central Florida's tourism industry, the airport has seen its relationships with business and tourism players, including Walt Disney World, deteriorate in recent months.

Disney's Magical Express, a first-of-its-kind shuttle and baggage service that launched in May, brought with it a storm of controversy over whether it is causing the airport and some of its vendors to lose millions in revenue.

"The one thing that is offered by the vacancy is the opportunity to improve relations with the convention and visitor folks, the hospitality industry," Crotty said.

The aviation authority board plans to look at candidates with and without an aviation background.

"We need to do more with the convention center and hotels," Fuqua said. "We need to do more economic development, focus on international travel. . . . It's not going to be enough just to build and operate and maintain an outstanding facility for passengers. We've got to do more."

Beth Kassab can be reached at bkassab@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5448.

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