ST. LUCIE COUNTY — Redeveloping Treasure Coast International Airport & Business Park into an aviation-maintenance hub could have far-reaching impact across the Treasure Coast, not just St. Lucie County.
County officials have been laying the groundwork — preparing to build new hangars and working to recruit new tenants — to transform the 3,660-acre general-aviation airport into a maintenance hub as a way to bolster economic activity in the poorer areas of St. Lucie County.
This year, the Legislature awarded the county $2.5 million, half the cost of a 30,000- to 35,000-square-foot hangar to be used for aircraft maintenance. The county will pay the balance.
The hangar will be built on about 4 acres near the air-traffic control tower, Airport Manager John Wiatrak said.
“The hangar construction is meant to provide a new job center for up to 150 people,” Wiatrak said. “This hangar will be built to accommodate maintenance for airline-sized jet aircraft that require dozens of highly trained specialists to perform the work.”
Construction is expected to start in November and last eight to 12 months.
OTHER COUNTIES WOULD BENEFIT
“In general, the proposal looks like it could promote job growth to the region, not just St. Lucie County,” said Peter Merritt, assistant director of the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council. “There are people who live in Martin County who now travel to Palm Beach or farther south for work, and having jobs in St. Lucie would mean they would be a lot closer to home.”
Likewise, development at the St. Lucie airport could benefit the Indian River County and the Vero Beach aviation sector, if even indirectly, according to Eric Menger, director of Vero Beach Regional Airport, which last year brought back commercial passenger service for the first time since 1996.
“I hope St. Lucie County is successful, because that will bring more eyes to the Treasure Coast and more businesses will see what the region has to offer,” Menger said. “Any new growth and activity will bring benefits to us all.”
BRINGING IN BUSINESS
Treasure Coast International Airport & Business Park, northwest of downtown Fort Pierce, has 130 tenants — 50 operating businesses and 80 individuals or businesses that rent hangars to store personal aircraft, according to county records. About 15 of the existing businesses are new.
One of them, American Jet Rescue Air Ambulance, is owned by one of the former owners of a prior air ambulance company that left the county about two years ago, Wiatrak said.
Jim Hoehn, president of American Jet Rescue Air Ambulance, said he wanted to return to the airport because of the location, access to Customs building and the airport’s small-town feel. Hoehn said his company transports sick or injured people to the U.S. for treatment. Most of his patients are Americans who became ill or got hurt while traveling abroad and need to return to the U.S. for treatment.
“All of what we do is international travel — flying to the Bahamas or South America to pick up someone who is sick or injured. As soon as you get over U.S. airspace you have to check in to Customs for clearance. The Customs (office) here is less of a hassle to go through than anyplace down south,” Hoehn said.
Up to 9,000 square feet at the new hangar will be earmarked for office space, badly needed because there’s no space currently available at the airport.
Longtime airport tenant Bill Wilcox, owner of Phoenix Metals, a manufacturer of commercial airplane parts such as passenger stairs and stainless steel enclosures for aircraft restrooms, said he needs an additional 6,000 square feet to help fill a $2.4 million order for baggage carts.
“The county has been receptive to our needs and demands, but you just can’t build the space fast enough,” Wilcox said. “The airport must continue to be a focus of the County Commission. If not, it will wither away, like anything that doesn’t receive proper care.”