Nov. 17–Heading into one of the year’s busiest weeks for travel, the chief benefit of flying out of Gainesville Regional Airport is clear — no lines, no waiting — while the biggest drawback is also obvious — few options for cheap flights.
Despite millions spent to improve parking and expand the terminal and the addition of twice-daily American Airlines routes to Dallas that begin in March, Gainesville Regional’s scanty schedule is seen by some business leaders as a threat to attracting and retaining high-tech companies and a talented workforce.
Greg Schultz, general manger of Mindtree, a national information technology company with a base in Innovation Square, said Gainesville’s lack of direct flights and carrier choices and high airfares presents a "huge problem" for the company that ushers in clients in banking and insurance services from around the nation.
"Those are the there biggest challenges I see with Gainesville’s current airport. About 70 percent of our clients come to us from outside of Gainesville, and it becomes very problematic because a lot of the flights are booked two-to-three weeks out. Finding a flight to Gainesville at that point means tickets are $700 to $900 a pop. It becomes very expensive. And so often, flights are booked to Jacksonville, Tampa, or Orlando.
"But then, it takes an hour and half drive to come to our Gainesville offices. You lose a lot of time traveling. Time is money and everyone wants to make their trips as short as possible. Logistically, it just becomes a nightmare," Schultz said.
A group of community and business leaders, including Schultz, have started a task force to explore feasibility for a new commerical airport closer to the Alachua-Marion county line.
The idea to move the Gainesville Regional Airport south isn’t a new idea. It was brought up in the 1990s, studied and then shot down.
Mitch Glaeser, CEO of Gainesville-based Emory Group of Companies, is spearheading the new initiative and directing the task force. Glaeser believes now is a better time than ever to take the potential move seriously.
The task force, which is not sanctioned by any government body but whose members were appointed by local chambers of commerce, is lobbying for support of a new airport. They have commissioned a $65,000 data study from aviation consulting company Alieveon Pacific to identify how many new passengers might be attracted by an airport between Gainesville and Ocala.
A new location for a combined Ocala-Gainesville airport has not been selected by the group, but the general idea is it would be closer to the Alachua and Marion County line to draw more travelers from the southern portion of Marion County, where sprawling retirement communities hold the majority of the county’s population. But the land between Gainesville and Ocala is also known high-value horse farms and ecologically fragile prairies.
Alachua County’s members on the task force, along with Glaeser and Schultz, include Charlie Lane, University of Florida senior vice president and chief operating officer; Bob Page, a local CenterState bank executive; and real estate agent Diyonne McGraw, the chair of the African American Accountability Alliance (4As) political action committee. They were appointed by the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce.
In Marion County, task for members include Navroz Saju, president and CEO for HDG Hotels; Lynette Vermillion, a member of the Chamber & Economic Partnership; Thad Boyd, of Boyd Real Estate Group; Dan Peters, CEO of REV Fire Group; and Joe Donnelly, general manager of Golden Ocala Golf and and Equestrian Group. They were appointed by the Ocala-Marion CEP.
"Every business looks at their customer base, and airports are no different … We wanted to see if we looked at a regional partnership and collectively worked together on a combined airport, what would (the catchment area) model out to be?" Glaeser said. "From the study, we’re going to take those data points and make some decisions that way."
A decision to move the airport would not come from task force. It wouldn’t have authority to make one. It would require approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, Florida Division of Aeronautics, and the Gainesville/Alachua County Airport Authority Board.
And then there’s the hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure funding required.
It’d take years of work, Glaeser said, but he believes it’s necessary.
Proponents say a new airport is needed to keep a local airport and business community thriving, while making air travel in the area more friendly and cheaper for families with children. The airport is losing or "leaking" too many customers to more bustling airports in south Florida, Glaeser said, which offer more direct and cheaper flights to travelers in tourism-driven areas like Orlando.
Gainesville’s airport ranks 19th out of 20 Florida airports for yearly air passenger traffic, according to statistics from 2017.
Allan Penksa, who has been CEO of the Gainesville Regional Airport for more than a decade, said comparing Gainesville’s airport to other airports is like comparing apples to oranges. And it’s naive to compare Gainesville’s airport to other Florida cities with an airport, he said.
Gainesville clearly does not have the tourism market found in other Florida cities like Orlando, Miami, Tampa, Pensacola, Daytona, or even the similarly-sized Tallahassee, which has air traffic from politicians traveling in and out of the city and more state capital-related tourism, Penksa said. Tallahassee’s airport is ranked 15th out of 20 Florida airports in air passenger traffic.
And though not generally seen as a family-fun tourist attraction, Tallahassee’s airport still had 100,000 more people who flew out of the state capital than Gainesville in 2017.
"I’m not against (moving) it. There’s pros and cons to this," he said. "But it’s most important to remember if you look at one community, you’re looking at one community."
Penksa said additionally, carriers that offer cheap flights, like Allegiant and Spirit, don’t come into markets like Gainesville because it doesn’t fit their business model. Penksa said they offer flights from colder cities to tourist cities, like Orlando. But the tourism industry in Gainesville, even combined with Ocala, isn’t big enough to draw those carriers to north central Florida.
Southwest Airlines, a major U.S. carrier, won’t enter markets with a metropolitan statistical area with a population less than 1 million people, Penksa said.
Ocala International Airport does not have passenger service but gets its global bragging rights because chartered aircraft carry thoroughbreds and other high-priced horses from auctions and training facilities. The airport was served by Eastern Airlines for about 25 years before the airline shifted its flights to Gainesville. Work recently began on a new $6 million terminal for general aviation.
Even if Marion and Alachua County combined airports, Penksa doubts it would lure Southwest, which already serves eight Florida cities including Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa.
Despite the lack of tourism or a huge population, a new airport located near the Marion and Alachua County line, Glaeser said, could attract travelers from areas like The Villages who don’t want to deal with the traffic around Tampa and Orlando.
And this region is expected to grow. The area within a 75-mile radius of where a new airport might be located is expected to be home to 1.2 million people by 2020, according to NASA’s Earth Data project.
"We need more direct flights," Glaeser said. "We need to focus on our customer service, businesses and families."
Kevin Sheilley, president and CEO of the Ocala CEP, said he first heard of the idea of a Ocala-Gainesville airport from former Gainesville Chamber President and CEO Susan Davenport, who proposed the idea to him in the summer of 2017. He said he thought it was a good idea.
"This can make sense," Sheilley thought.
Sheilley said he views the new airport as an economic opportunity to grow the Marion County’s footprint for office space and corporate headquarters.
"There would be a lot more air travel if it was more convenient," he said. "I think knowing that when you get off a plane that you’d only have 25 minutes to get to your home instead of an hour and a half drive would be an advantage and open up opportunities."
Sheilley said he’s excited to study the data and then worry about cost.
"The cost is something you definitely have to look at but we have to take this one step a time," he said. "We see what the data (from the catchment study) tells us and then take the next step."
Though a major challenge, Glaeser said studying the data, looking for funding, gathering support and moving forward with the new-airport initiative is imperative to Gainesville and the business community, which he believes has been hurt about the airport’s lack of direct flights around the country.
Schultz, at Mindtree, said he believes a new airport would help solve a problem that’s holding back his job, which is to grow Mindtree in Gainesville. He said he doesn’t think Gainesville’s airport could get enough direct flights to solve the problems at hand.
"The airport is tucked away in this northeastern corner of town," he said. "It’s just not accessible enough to stand up to more carrier choice, given its location."
Schultz was hesitant to say definitively if Mindtree would move away from Gainesville if airport service wasn’t improved.
Joshua Javaheri, art director at Gainesville gaming company Trendy Entertainment, said not flights to say, New York, creates problems when setting up meetings with venture capitalists interested in investing in the company.
"A flight to New York would be incredible. It’s more of a convenience thing. I’d like to be able to fly to New York at 8 a.m. and be back by 4 p.m.," Javaheri said. "Now, it’s sometimes a two-day trip."
Javaheri said he believes Gainesville leaders need to incentivize technology companies to stay in Gainesville. Improved air service would be a good start, he said.
"I don’t believe the city or chamber focuses enough on retaining talent they cultivate here," he said.
Though the airport authority board and its leadership haven’t taken a stance on the potential airport move, Penksa said he sees the benefits. But the main issues with building the new airport, which he said would be hard to get past, are costs and timing.
"It’s going to take at least two professional air industry consultants to take a real hard look at this, taking a look at the demographics and the population to see if it’s worth the cost and when is the best time to do this," Penksa said.
"At what point and what cost? Is the potential increase in enplanements worth the cost? They’re looking to do what’s best by the community but does it add value to the commuter experience? These are all things that need to be looked at."
Even if the money was there, Penksa said, moving the airport isn’t so simple. It would be a major challenge with several moving parts.
Land vast enough for an airport in rural Alachua or Marion County would be a tough find, he said. Penksa reckoned current residents in the area enjoyed simple living and not hearing jet engines at their dinner tables or while trying to sleep.
County Commissioner Mike Byerly said he hasn’t been contacted by the task force as of Tuesday, but what he’s heard so far about the idea to move the airport south hasn’t impressed him. The plan, as it sits, he said, could create more problems than it solves.
"I say the (proposed) location, along the southern edge of Alachua and the northern of Marion, could have catastrophic effects on the quality of life of the community that lives there," Byerly said. "I’m hard-pressed to make sense of it. These are not nothing areas. They’re rural, but they’re not unpopulated.
"Who wants to live near a runway at a presumably larger airport?"
Byerly, whose District 1 runs through, southern Alachua County, said he didn’t know if he was qualified to make a judgment on whether the current airport satisfies county residents’ needs.
"All I know is that sometimes I fly out of Gainesville, sometimes I fly out of Jacksonville, and sometimes I fly out of Orlando," he said.
Potentially the biggest issue, Penksa said, would be funding for the airport. The cost, based on comparable projects, could be between $400 and $500 million.
Even if the airport sold its property off Waldo Road to a developer — something Glaeser has mentioned as possibility to offset the cost of a new airport, while also helping to revitalize a new-development-neglected east Gainesville — Penksa said the money earned from the sale wouldn’t even cut the cost of a new airport in half.
In other cities, like Denver and Austin, Texas, Glaeser said, developers have turned former airport sites into mixed-use, retail and and housing development projects, providing economic activity and jobs.
Penksa isn’t convinced that’s a possibility with the Gainesville airport site.
"There isn’t anyone who is going to pay over $100 million for this property," he said.
A statement issued by the FAA says that airport officials have not notified the administration of any proposal to move the Gainesville Regional Airport.
The statement said relocating an airport requires years of planning and coordination with the state and local governments and the FAA. The FAA needs to be notified early on in the process, according to the statement, especially if a project would require federal funding assistance.
The FAA would require the need to move the airport be justified with data. Additionally, it’d require an FAA airspace study to determine the effects of existing airport facilities and flights.
Another potential issue, the FAA said, is the airport’s current grant obligations.
The airport has made millions of dollars’ worth of renovations over the last several years funded by city-co-sponsored grants from the Federal Aviation Administration. If the airport closes, those grants would have to be paid back, adding to the cost of moving the airport, Penksa said.
"(The idea of moving the airport) is a real distraction from making improvements here," he said.
Glaeser said over the next few months, the task force will continue working to gain support for the new airport.
It will look at the data once the study is completed in a few months to see if a new airport would be worth the cost.
He said he hopes, despite opposition or skeptics, people can see the benefits of a new airport.
"This is an opportunity in time that if we don’t have a real serious, meaningful and deliberative look at quality air service for our region, we probably will not have this opportunity again for a long time and maybe ever," he said. "Probably not ever."
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