Leesburg Lets Airport Grant Go For Now

Aug. 9--LEESBURG -- Burdened by delays, the city Monday agreed to give up a half-million dollar grant that was to help pay for an extension of Leesburg Regional Airport's main runway.

That money from the Florida Department of Transportation would have paid for the design phase, a necessary step before the $4 million construction could begin.

By adding 1,300 feet to the 5,000-foot runway, the airport could handle larger planes and allow some others to carry more fuel than they can now.

City officials have not canceled the project.

"We'll seek funding again," Airport Manager Charlie Weller said Monday before the City Commission approved giving up a $550,000 grant from the Transportation Department.

Officials said they would not be able to use the money for the design by the grant's expiration date of October 2006.

Plans to extend the runway have been running behind schedule since the city last year fired a consultant hired to prepare the project for groundbreaking.

The city had paid Wilbur Smith Associates $150,000. About 20 percent of that came from the city and the rest came from the Department of Transportation.

The consultant's job was to assess the runway's environmental impact, a study typically required by the federal government before design and construction begins.

"The assessment was never completed to the satisfaction of the Federal Aviation Administration," Weller said. The consultants "didn't do the job they were supposed to do," he said.

City officials in February hired a new consultant, MEA Group Inc., which began work in March, Weller said. The city paid the Tampa-based company about $350,000 - 5 percent of which came from the city; the federal government paid the rest.

The assessment could take up to a year to finish, Weller said. After that, the city will try to find new funding for the design.

City officials say a longer runway could make it more convenient for corporate planes and jets that tend to fly longer distances.

Weller explained that the more fuel an aircraft carries, the more the plane weighs. And heavier planes generally need longer runways.

The runway extension is one of several airport improvements designed to attract more corporate clients.

Deputy City Manager Jay Evans said the city gave up the $550,000 grant as a courtesy, not because the city was forced to do so. He said he is confident the city will find more funding.

"We're not under the gun to send it back," Evans said. "We're being cooperative, and it helps free up money for other airports that need it now."