Florala Airport seeks new business

Published 12:03 am Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Florala Airport Authority took steps Tuesday that will allow it to pursue Federal Aviation Administration monies to improve the Florala Municipal Airport, and in turn, pursue new business.

Mayor Robert Williamson called the actions “potentially, one of the biggest economic development announcements in Florala in a long, long time.”

City attorney Wesley Laird said that more than 20 years ago, the Florala AA entered into a 40-year lease with Sunshine Aero Industries, a Crestview, Fla.,based company that provides aircraft fuel to the military. The contract granted the company the exclusive rights of the fuel service at the Florala Municipal Airport.

It was recently discovered that lease did not meet FAA and Alabama Department of Transportation guidelines, which prevented the airport from utilizing FAA funds for maintenance and operations at the local airport, he said. Additionally, the lease was declared void by law after 20 years because it was not recorded in the Covington County Probate Office, which prompted the Florala AA to file a complaint for declaratory relief to end the current lease and to begin negotiations for a new lease, he said.

“Twenty years ago, Sunshine Aero came to the airport, and the city is very thankful for the economic impact and the jobs created,” Laird said. “But, we must meet FAA guidelines.”

Laird said he has worked with FAA and ALDOT officials to create a lease that meets their guidelines. Tuesday, he presented the third draft, which was approved by the airport authority members. Board members include Chairman Ricky Suggs, John Garner and Ben Robbins. Robbins was not present.

“And I think this is the final one where everyone can agree,” Laird said. “There are several reasons for a new lease. The main purpose is that it allows the airport to keep the annual FAA allocations, which in years past had been graciously given to the South Alabama Regional Airport. That figure ranges from $100,000 to $250,000 a year that could have been used for improvements.

“(The new lease) eliminates the exclusive fuel sales and allows the airport authority to enter into a combo lease, which allows for rent based on fuel flowage per gallon and (rent) on the land and buildings,” he said.

“In essence what the new lease does is create a way that the airport authority can apply equitable lease straight across the board if there are other prospects that want to locate here,” he said.

Laird said specific rent amounts have not been negotiated, but the figure will be comparable to the state average for a facility of Florala’s size.

Currently, Sunshine Aero operates on 10.15 acres of the 100-plus acre airport and employs an estimated 15 people.

“We don’t want Sunshine Aero to leave, but we do want to make things equitable for others who want to locate at the airport,” said Ricky Suggs, airport authority board chairman.

Suggs said the day’s event’s was a “positive step” for the airport authority.

“I see businesses generated,” he said. “Small businesses that come out (to the airport) because of any expansion should help draw other businesses in. And, any business will help Florala.”

Suggs said one of the first improvements to be made will be a runway expansion.

“Right now, we’re at 3,300 feet,” he said. “We want to extend that to 6,000 feet. Then, we’ll see what we can do with the rest of that acreage. We’re hoping to explore the option of building a spec building to draw business – kind of similar to Vector at SARA in Andalusia.”

Now, the Florala AA is searching for an engineer to help create a master plan for the airport, as well as an airport consultant. Laird said engineer proposals are due by July 1.

“We’re pushing things quickly now so we can make the upcoming fiscal year’s grant cycle,” Laird said.

The board hopes to execute the lease with Sunshine Aero, as well as hire an engineer, at its next meeting, which is tentatively set for July 5.