Florida Airport Gives Publix Extension for Closing Land Deal

Nov. 18--PUNTA GORDA -- A $10.2 million price hike prompted Publix to ask for more time to consider its commitment to build a distribution center in Charlotte County.

The county's Airport Authority, which is selling Publix the land, granted the buyer's request during its regular monthly meeting Thursday. Publix received a three-month extension of the original deadline for closing the deal, which would have been the end of the month.

Gov. Jeb Bush was among dignitaries who showed up last December when it was announced amid much fanfare that Publix was building an 88-acre, 600,000-square-foot distribution center at the Charlotte County industrial park. The company was to pay $3.2 million for the land, based on a 2003 appraisal.

The Federal Aviation Administration, however, demanded a new appraisal. As regulator of all U.S. airports, the FAA demands airports receive "fair market value" for any property they sell.

According to the most recent appraisal, the 88 acres are now worth $13.4 million.

"The price has jumped rather awesomely," Executive Director Gary Quill told authority members Thursday, "and the cost estimate also has jumped, due to rising construction prices and other factors."

"Can this thing fall through?" asked authority member Robert Skidmore.

"It could," Quill replied. "Hopefully, it won't."

Quill recommended granting the extension, which was approved by four of the five authority members.

"We are not in the business of selling property," said Pamella Seay, who voted no. "We are in the business of running an airport. We need to be very cautious about selling any land in and around the airport."

"I've always been on the same page," Chairman Don Lee said, "but this is a special circumstance. We talked about it for many years and agreed this is good for everyone."

Quill said he thought the current assessment of the land's value should be valid for a year. Commenting later on the rapidly escalating price, he said he has "never seen anything like it."

He said he would meet with the FAA to determine if there was any "flexibility" in their insistence on fair market value. He said he didn't know if the price could be reduced, but said grant money for utilities and other infrastructure might help "offset" some of the purchase price.

Quill said the Wal-Mart distribution center in DeSoto County received incentives since it is located in what is considered a rural area for state-grant purposes.

"Our county doesn't have that," Quill said, adding that completing the deal is "certainly going to be a challenge."

At the close of Thursday's Airport Authority meeting, members elected a new slate of officers. Seay was elected chairman, Skidmore vice chairman, Lee secretary-treasurer and Kathleen Coppola assistant secretary-treasurer.

Gary Stasko had a tongue-in-check reaction to remaining the lone commissioner without an office.

"I'd like to thank the board for keeping me no one," he said with a grin, "and I look forward to another year of service as no one."

In other developments at the meeting:

--Airport employees Olga Lervezuk, Patti Sutcliffe and Richard Sowles received plaques honoring five years of service. Sutcliffe, who has been with the airport six years, heads the accounting department. Lervezuk, who acts as airport custodian, also received a perfect-attendance award. Sowles is a lineman who helps fuel aircraft.

--Lionel Schuman of the Experimental Aircraft Association said Lee would be honored at the Florida Aviation Expo to be held at the airport in January. Schuman said Lee "has done a lot for this airport and aviation."

Schuman is also chairman of the Military Heritage & Aviation Museum, which will be built on five acres of land provided by the airport near the new Piper Road. Schuman said a sign has been erected at the site proclaiming it as the future home of the museum.

Schuman also said museum organizers are looking to hire a fundraising firm on a contingency basis. In addition to the money for the building, he said, "we have to have an endowment" to meet annual expenses.

--The authority members heard from Gerry Bandy, senior planner with MEA Group Inc., a Palm Beach firm that acts as a consultant to the airport. Bandy is working on a master plan for the airport for the next 20 years. The plan will cover the layout of the airport and new terminal, access, environmental impacts and financing.

Developing the plan will require public information meetings and workshops, Bandy said. The master plan is expected to be completed by the end of September next year.

Seay suggested the board hold a workshop and invite the public.

"Before we get too far along in the process, we should develop a vision of our own," she said.

"I think we all know where we want to go, but it hasn't been laid out," said Skidmore.

"The plan is a skeleton," Bandy said. "The board's job is to provide the meat for those bones."