For Full Story: The Ledger

Article By: John Chambliss

 

For years, there has been talk about why the city can’t bring a commercial airline to Lakeland Linder. That discussion may be on the back burner for a bit as focus has shifted toward a $32 million construction project that includes a new international air cargo business and the potential for 400 jobs at a proposed aircraft maintenance facility.

The opening of a U.S. Customs office at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport made it an international airport; by adding the maintenance facility and expanding the Customs services to include international freight, it will also be an industrial one.

The maintenance facility has been discussed for years, but was temporarily delayed as the airport focused its time and resources on landing the federal contract with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration “Hurricane Hunters” unit.

Now construction on the 42-acre maintenance and air cargo facility project is set to begin in July and last about a year. Once that first phase is completed, businesses could be lured to the airport to open a maintenance, repair and overhaul company for large jets, said Gene Conrad, airport director.

“We have several opportunities we’re working on now,” Conrad said when asked which companies are interested in bringing their business to Lakeland.

The initial $13 million construction west of the terminal involves building a ramp for hangar and cargo space, creating utilities, wetland mitigation and storm water management.

Conrad and Sean Malott, head of the Central Florida Development Council, were at a Polk County commission meeting on Tuesday. The Commission approved a $500,000 infrastructure grant to the City of Lakeland.

The initial $13 million construction west of the terminal involves building a ramp for hangar and cargo space, creating utilities, wetland mitigation and storm water management.

Conrad and Sean Malott, head of the Central Florida Development Council, were at a Polk County commission meeting on Tuesday. The Commission approved a $500,000 infrastructure grant to the City of Lakeland.

In addition, a state grant for $6.5 million and a state loan of $4.6 million to be repaid from lease revenues will help fund the project.

After the meeting, Malott said the airport’s plans are the “next evolution of business” for an area with 9 million people within 100 miles.

“We think this is a big opportunity,” Malott said. Of the 400 potential jobs, about 250 would be well above the median household income in Polk.

It means that perishables or cut flowers could be flown into Lakeland then transported to a destination in Central Florida. For example, Conrad said he’s had conversations with a company that could bring avocados from another country into Lakeland.

Currently, much of the perishable and cut flower business comes into Miami, Conrad said.

It would take a shipping company, such as Old Dominion or Forward Air, to open a site at the airport for the service to begin.

Currently, the airport does not have customs clearance for cargo, and can only clear passengers for entry into the U.S. But Conrad said the airport would work with federal officials in Tampa and the USDA to obtain additional personnel to clear aircraft carrying perishables.

Conrad said the city could lease the space or possibly partner with the state to build hangars for potential businesses looking to come to Lakeland Linder.

Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz said the proposal brings big possibilities.

“The airport for us is the epicenter of future opportunities,” Mutz said.

In the coming weeks, Mutz noted the city commission will vote on whether to strike “regional” from its name and set “international” in its place.

The proposed maintenance facility could also be the end of a skill-building pipeline for students at Traviss Technical College and the Central Florida Aerospace Academy.

After graduating from one of the schools, students can earn a certificate to work on airframes and aviation engines within six months.

Boeing estimates nearly 120,000 new technicians will be needed in North America over the next two decades.

Mutz said some of that shortage can be addressed in Polk County.

“We can triple the number of students we are serving today,” Mutz said. And Mutz and Conrad said they haven’t given up on commercial air.

The city wants to lure a large carrier to fly two or three flights a day from Lakeland to hub cities, such as to and from Atlanta on Delta Airlines or Charlotte on American Airlines.

“The economy is in a good spot right now, airlines are making record profits and the population here is growing,” Conrad said. “Our people here and businesses need to be able to move freely and get in and out.”

“If we fly to a large hub, we can get anywhere in the world and that’s the goal,” he said.