After three years of planning, developers of a proposed 22,000-acre cargo airport in Hardee County say they will begin applying for permits in August.
"We hope to be started by the end of summer," Marcus Shackelford, manager of Van Fleet Airport Group's Wauchula office, said this week. "This is a long, long process. This is a group of investors that have faith and they are funding it."
Van Fleet is the most recent investor to embrace the idea of an international cargo airport with long runways on phosphate-mined land in the four corners area where Hardee meets Manatee, Polk and Hillsborough counties.
Shackelford said planes could fly fruit, vegetables, cattle and other products from the area to buyers all over the world.
The airport, which could also support industrial uses nearby, would be just north of State Road 62 with the eastern border of the airport right on the Manatee County border, Shackelford said. The cost of the airport has been estimated at $850 million.
Predictions for ground breaking range from 2008 to 2009.
Like other surrounding counties, Manatee is waiting to see what will happen next, said Bob Bartz, president of the Manatee Chamber of Commerce.
"It's been a number of years since we met with the folks regarding the cargo airport," Bartz said Tuesday. "They have been very persistent and seem to be making some progress so I wouldn't rule out the possibility of it happening some day. I think there is probably some permitting challenges before them.
"Certainly, if it did come into being, it would possibly bring benefits to many of our businesses and might even attract new business to the area," Bartz added.
The group's most recent step was an appearance before the Central Florida Regional Planning Council on March 9.
At that meeting in Lakeland, Van Fleet told regional planners they could be ready to begin applying for permits at the end of the summer, Shackelford said.
Before breaking ground, developers will have to satisfy the environmental concerns of the Southwest Florida Water Management District and, eventually, the Federal Aviation Administration, Shackelford said.
Van Fleet has hired consultants to help them through the permitting maze, Shackelford said.
"We've got a thousand people a day coming to Florida to live," Shackelford said. "We feel there will be a need for a cargo airport. The airport in Miami is about maxed out. There is no room to expand there."
"People think of Wauchula as the middle of nowhere," Shackelford added. "But we are actually close to ports, close to Tampa and Orlando. A lot of freight coming into Miami has to be trucked up the state now. This would cut off some of the driving."
If federal agencies OK the project, the Hardee County Commission will jump on board, said Park Winter, Hardee County's director of economic development.
"There is certainly interest coming in from everywhere," Winter said. "Development is moving inland anyway. A lot of forward thinking companies realize if they set up an operation a little ways inland and still have access to their markets, they save a whole lot of money."
Winter said Hardee County has a lot at stake in this big dream.
"This is the future of this whole region," Winter said. "It will trigger a mechanism for all of central Florida."