New Panama City, Fla. Airport Approved

The airport would be the first to be built since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

In that same interview, Rummell said he personally lobbied the governor to put taxpayer money behind the project. Florida Department of Transportation spokesman Dick Kane said Friday the state has budgeted $97-million for the new airport over the next five years.

But last month company spokesman Jerry Ray contended St. Joe's plans do not rely on the airport.

"We don't assume there's an airport in our business plan," he said. "It has never been in there."

St. Joe salesmen have used the proposed airport as a selling point for buyers.

Ryan Fleming, sales manager for a St. Joe development called RiverCamps at Crooked Creek, told prospective buyers in mid August, "They'll start construction on the new airport in 2007, and the first flights will take off in 2009."

Those dates are not that firm.

One question mark is money. To finance the move, Bay County hopes to sell the current airport site for at least $50-million, said Curtis, the airport authority's executive director. The rest of the cost is to be borne by state and federal taxpayers. A shortfall in the sale of the airport could pose a problem for financing the relocation.

Last spring the FAA published an environmental impact statement that said moving the airport to the St. Joe site appeared to be the best alternative. The Natural Resources Defense Council, however, responded that the FAA had failed to take into account redevelopment plans for the existing airport or planned development adjacent to the proposed site.

Defense Council attorney Melanie Shepherdson said Friday the FAA did not reply to its concerns.

Shepherdson said it's premature to suggest that her group might sue. But the council, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups last year persuaded a federal judge to halt construction on several St. Joe projects because of flaws in the wetland destruction permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The airport requires a separate wetlands permit, which has not been approved.

In the past 30 years, only four new commercial airports have been built: in Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, Fort Myers and Fayetteville, Ark. Each took decades of planning and study.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the airline industry has been buffeted by financial woes. Northwest and Delta have cut back the number of seats available for flights at the current Panama City airport.

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