Jacksonville Airport Aurhority Addresses Cecil Field Fears

Oct. 18--The largest landholder at Cecil Field has been assured in writing that funds will be provided so it can make "an uninterrupted transition to new facilities" at Jacksonville International Airport if the U.S. Navy returns to Cecil.

Flightstar Aircraft Services, which has a 210,000-square-foot hangar at the Westside airport, has been asking for such a letter for weeks, after meeting with the Jacksonville Airport Authority and the mayor to discuss its fate.

The company is concerned because of the city's offer of Cecil Field to the Department of Defense for use as a master jet base, which would most likely require private tenants like Flightstar, Florida Community College at Jacksonville and Logistic Services International to move to other facilities.

It's still unknown if the Navy will return to the site it gave to the city in 1999: Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, which is now home to the jet base, will keep the jets if the state of Virginia complies with a list of conditions aimed at rolling back development around the site.

Nevertheless, Flightstar said it needed to know that it could continue to grow in Jacksonville.

"We said, 'Guys, we're your biggest tenant out there. We need to know what you're doing with us,' " said Matt Eaton, the company's vice president of corporate development. "We have vendors that want to know what's going on. We have potential customers, we have employees, we have creditors who say, 'If we loan you money for your business, what's going to happen to it?' "

Late last week, the company received the letter from John Clark, executive director of the Airport Authority.

"Please be assured that the JAA will continue to work closely with the City to ensure that necessary funds are available to build the facilities that Flightstar needs to make an uninterrupted transition to new facilities at JIA should a move become necessary," Clark wrote.

The letter was designed to ease whatever fears the company might have, the executive director said Monday, adding that Flightstar was the only company at Cecil that has received -- or asked for -- such a letter.

"We want to do whatever we can to give them assurance," Clark said.

Flightstar started with four employees in Miami in 1997 and moved to Jacksonville a few years later. The company -- which performs a range of aircraft engineering work such as modifying passenger jets so they can carry cargo, conducting regular maintenance checks and painting aircraft -- now has about 250 employees, although it expects to grow to about 700.

It relocated to Cecil in June after outgrowing its home at Jacksonville International Airport. Before committing to the former military base, the company looked at sites elsewhere, including Tampa, Orlando, Greensboro, S.C., and Sanford.

Part of what kept it in the city was a $2 million federal economic development grant and $6 million from the Jacksonville Airport Authority that funded its $12 million expansion.

If the city does break Flightstar's lease, which extends to 2030, the company might entertain the possibility of moving to another city, Eaton said.

"It would depend on what Jacksonville offered us," he said. "Some community might feel we'd be a bigger benefit to them than to Jacksonville. We're not here to hold anybody up."

Although the letter does provide some comfort, Eaton said, it was a bit vaguer than the company was looking for.

"It spoke in a roundabout way," he said. "It could have said it a little more directly. Still, the fact that they took the time to respond and listen to us is always a good thing."


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