‘Aerotropolis’ Under Construction

Six years after the plan was first put to paper, the outline of a new international airport finally is taking shape in the piney woods of western Bay County. By Tony Bridges

‘Aerotropolis’ Under ConstructionInternational airport to open in 2010By Tony Bridges

Six years after the plan was first put to paper, the outline of a new international airport finally is taking shape in the piney woods of western Bay County.

Update: Plans Moving Ahead For Longest Commercial Runway in Northwest Florida

With hopes of bringing in bigger jets with more tourists and cargo, the Panama City-Bay County International Airport Authority has decided to push ahead with plans for a 10,000-foot-long main runway at the new airport in West Bay.

Although the runway was initially 8,400 feet, the airport was awarded an additional $4.5 million by the Florida Legislature to extend the length. Plans are now underway to get the necessary permitting for the project.

 “The longer runway will put us in the strongest position to compete for better air service and large aviation-dependent economic development projects,” said Joe Tannehill, Airport Authority chairman.

Questions have been raised about whether the add-on would push back the airport’s opening date of Memorial Day, 2010, but construction is three months ahead of schedule and the additional 1,600 feet of pavement is not expected to cause any delay.

“This new runway will be the only 10,000 foot commercial runway in the Northwest Florida region,” said Tannehill, adding that it will give the Panama City area an edge over the rest of Florida’s large airports and boost the region’s economic development efforts.

Construction of the main airport’s two-mile long entry road is complete, and 80 percent of the storm sewer pipes are in place.  — Chelsey Germani

Construction crews have been working 24 hours a day, seven days a week to get the site prepared. They’ve cleared 1,300 acres of pine trees and scrub brush for the terminal and two runways, hauled away hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of wetland muck so the land could be leveled with solid fill dirt, and laid in a paved access road.

Airport Executive Director Randy Curtis says parts of Phase I are about three months ahead of schedule. Bidding for the terminal contracts begins next. If all goes well, the new Panama City-Bay County International Airport will open for traffic in May 2010.

But planners have something much grander in mind than just another airport. The idea is that it will become an “aerotropolis,” an anchor for an entire community built around the business of air transport.

The new airport is being built in the wedge between State Road 79 and County Road 388 as part of the St. Joe Company’s West Bay Sector Plan. The plan calls for mixed-use development of about 35,000 acres of woodland and includes the airport, a regional employment center, office buildings, a marina and residential neighborhoods. St. Joe has set aside about 40,000 acres around the West Bay for conservation.

The project eventually may tie into another piece of as-yet undeveloped land owned by the Knight newspaper family. That tract of about 55,000 acres, known locally as Moody’s Pasture, straddles the Bay-Washington county line. Northern Trust manages the property and is in long-terming planning to develop it.

Airport construction was held up last year by lawsuits over the potential environmental impact, but Curtis says those have been largely resolved. Phoenix Construction, which has the contract for Phase I, broke ground on

Dec. 26, 2007.

Once done, the airport terminal will be 105,000 square feet, with seven gates, and the runway will be 8,400 feet, although Curtis says the plan is to extend that to 10,000 feet. The project is expected to cost up to $330 million.

The Airport City

Mel Ponder, executive director of Coastal Vision 3000, is responsible for marketing the region from Pensacola to Port St. Joe. He sees the airport as a potentially strong economic catalyst.

Increased international service will bring in ecotourists looking to explore the area’s coastline, rivers and estuaries. And, because the airport will be close to both rail lines and the Port of Panama City, it will tie freight shipping into one central hub, drawing more business, he says.

“I think its going to be a tremendous asset to the region, no doubt,” Ponder says.

As part of an effort to attract more than just passenger traffic, the Airport Authority hired consultant John Kasarda, an aviation infrastructure expert and the director of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina. His job will be to help plan the commercial surroundings and market the new facility at airport conferences around the globe.

Kasarda coined the term “aerotropolis” several years ago to describe what he says are the cities of aviation-related businesses and residences that naturally grow up around an airport. The airport serves as the city core, or downtown, and the community spreads out for up to 20 miles.

As he puts it on his Web site: “Airports will shape business location and urban development in the 21st century as much as highways did in the 20th century, railroads in the 19th and seaports in the 18th.”

Kasarda says the aerotropolis in Bay County could include e-commerce shipping centers, meeting and exhibition spaces, and office buildings, as well as retail and entertainment complexes and residential neighborhoods serving those who work at the airport or are in travel-intensive professions.

The new airport will be particularly appealing to aging baby boomers who want to buy a second home or semi-retire in Northwest Florida while maintaining ties to their careers, he says.

Of course, it will take a while to reap the benefits.

“You plan infrastructure for decades, not years,” Kasarda says.