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Southwest Florida is becoming a single, robust metropolis; residents see the evidence in new road construction, in new apartment and condominium developments and in the increasing number of commercial airliners in the sky.

In May, the U.S. Census Bureau released the first data from its 2020 Census, which shows Lee County is the fifth-fastest growing county in the nation, while Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties together gained more than 220,000 residents between 2010 and 2020.

The growth is expected to continue; the Southwest Florida Economic Development Alliance said the region’s population will rise from 1.3 million to 1.5 million people by 2025.

That means the region has to make room for more flights, both commercial and general aviation, and the seven area airports are preparing for the future, renovating existing facilities and improving their runways.

Competition is strong among the area’s airports, each of which hopes to attract not only flights with business and tourist passengers, but businesses willing to lease hangar, warehouse and office space.

Major remodeling work began in May on the Naples Airport’s general aviation terminal to create a more memorable entrance to the city.

PUNTA GORDA AIRPORT (PGD)

If an airport in Southwest Florida mirrors the region’s growth, it is Punta Gorda Airport in Charlotte County. Like the five other airports aligned in a double row from Fort Myers to Marco Island and inland from LaBelle northeast to Clewiston, Punta Gorda has improved its runways and expanded its facilities.

As a sleepy general aviation airport in 2009, PGD recorded 614 landings; in 2019, the airport saw 5,212 landings, the bulk of which were Allegiant Air 737s. “We’re now up to 50 cities with Allegiant,” says PGD spokesman Kaleb Miller. “With Sun Country Airlines starting flights to Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport in December, we will have 1.6 million passengers before the year is out.”

In addition to $295,000 in turn fees in 2017, PGD earned $60,000 in fuel profits from Allegiant’s ground vehicles and received $72,000 in office and hangar revenue from the carrier. That has only increased from five years ago.

To make room for more commercial air service, PGD is enlarging its general aviation facilities for more than 400 Cessnas, Pipers and other private aircraft. The new General Aviation Center on the north side of the airport will house fixed-base operators, a restaurant and bars, hangars, parking, access road, aircraft ramp, taxiway and taxi-lane improvements, Miller said.

SchenkelShultz Architecture and Owen-Ames-Kim-ball Co. have been chosen as the design-build team for the new fixed-base operator hangar at the airport. The 14,400-square-foot standalone hangar, which will be located in the airport’s aviation expansion area on the northside of the airfield, will serve as a base for transient customers flying in and out of the airport.

Like other SWFL airports, PGD is recovering in the post-COVID economy. When COVID hit in March 2020, PGD saw 151,783 passengers; in June 2021, passenger numbers were at 141,728.

Meanwhile, PGD’s Master Plan identified runways 15-33 and 4-22 as high-priority projects essential to the local economy. By extending Runway 15-33 to 6,286 feet, PGD can continue to handle 737s as Runway 4-22 is closed for rehabilitation, she said.

The Charlotte County Airport Authority’s innovative project team also incorporated essential safety and operational improvements to maximize the airfield for all its users, including general aviation pilots, onsite flight schools, medical air transport and charter services. The airport’s improvements won the Florida Department of transportation’s 2021 Commercial Service Airport Project of the Year.

SOUTHWEST FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT (RSW)

The Lee County Board of Port Commissioners on Sept. 21 approved a $331 million Terminal Expansion Project at Southwest Florida International Airport that will streamline security checkpoints, add concession space and increase passenger amenities. The three-year project was scheduled to begin in October.

Southwest Florida International Airport also came back full thrust after COVID. The Lee County Port Authority said the airport saw a 2,000% rise in passengers between April 2020 and April 2021. That’s why the Transportation Security Agency, which provides official passenger counts, calls it the top airport in the United States for passenger recovery in 2020.

“We have recently added flights to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle that will give SWFL businesses with concerns in Asia excellent connecting service through these West Coast cities,” says Victoria Moreland of the Lee County Port Authority. “The airport will add Frankfurt Airport (FRA) in late March 2022 for access to the vast Lufthansa Network throughout Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. From there, RSW travelers can connect throughout the world.”

The increased passenger load at the chiefly seasonal airport puts a significant strain on the terminal’s present design of three separate checkpoints and concourses, Moreland said. The project will configure TSA checkpoints into 16 lanes. The remodeled terminal will see 117,000 square feet of new walkways and concession space.

Atkins North America Inc. is the consultant working on design and planning of the expansion project. The construction manager/general contractor for the project is Manhattan Construction.

NAPLES AIRPORT (APF): WELCOME HOME

A summer 2020 survey of passengers landing at Naples Airport showed that locals made up more than 80% of the passengers. “Passengers either owned a home in Naples, were coming to purchase a home or had a personal connection to someone in the area,” says Naples Airport Authority spokesman Zachary Burch.

Like other SWFL airports hoping to compete for a growing market of wealthy general aviation pilots, Naples Airport is improving its general aviation terminal, air traffic control tower and fire station.

The airport has a 6,600-foot runway, a 5,000-foot runway, and an 1,850-foot turf runway.

In May, the 732-acre airport began remodeling its general aviation terminal to create a memorable entrance to the city for visitors and residents. It includes an upgraded lobby, expanded passenger lounge and a marketplace for food and drink. “The remodel will also improve workspaces for our staff,” Burch says.

The $7.6 million project does not require any tax money; it is paid for by airport revenues, Burch said.

The air traffic control tower renovation will modernize the tower cab and offices for the controllers, further improving the airport’s already strong safety record, he said.

The remodeling of the terminal and control tower follow the opening of the airport’s new Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting Station in July 2020. “Its another critical safety project the airport has undertaken,” Burch says. “Our first responders can respond to the surrounding communities and reduce response times when it is most needed.”

MARCO ISLAND EXECUTIVE AIRPORT (MKY)

This small, exclusive general aviation airport on Mainsail Drive in East Naples has a 5,000-foot runway and is home to Fogarty Flying and Silsby Aviation flight school.

The Marco Island Executive Airport is free of congestion, yet only minutes away from the area’s amenities and attractions

Like other Collier County general aviation airports, it does not experience congestion and is “traffic free, yet only minutes away from the area’s amenities and attractions,” the Collier County Airport Authority boasts.

Airport officials said there is a 22-year waiting list for hangar space. “Right now, we have private development going on,” says Andrew Bennet, executive airport manager, Collier County Airport Authority. “An individual building a variety of private-use hangars to serve corporate fliers. We’re also building a transient hangar for aircraft that are not usually based at the airport.”

The executive airport has run into timeline problems with its new 16,500-square-foot executive terminal, although it opened to positive reviews in March. The county sued the builder of the terminal, West Construction, and its insurance company, Philadelphia Indemnity, alleging the fi rms created construction delays, failed to protect internet and sanitary utilities during construction and let work permits expire.

The two sides entered mediation and reached an agreement on July 23, according to an agreement released by the Collier County Commission.

The agreement requires West Construction to pay the county $45,811.82 in settlement, to be paid in four installments in 30 days, started Sept. 14.

In all, the county made a good deal, Commissioner Rick LoCastro said. “The county received the benefit of a brand-new, FDOT award-winning terminal, at a total contract price for $8.8 million,”LoCastro says.

At least $7 million of the $8.8 million came through grant funding, LoCastro said. “After the reimbursement of the grant funds, the county’s estimated 20% local contribution is $1.8 million.”

Touring the new terminal indicates a job well done. The interior is attractive and spacious, and has comfortable seating, with dining tables, kitchenette, line staff locker rooms, pilot lounges and other amenities for travelers and staff .

Now that the new terminal is up and running, the airport can complete a larger apron and aircraft parking area to provide room for enhanced air operation. The Federal Aviation Administration will pay 90% of the $3.5 million to $4 million apron and tarmac improvements.

Marco Hangars LLC also is building at least 11 new hangars that will provide about 117,000 square feet of space.

IMMOKALEE REGIONAL AIRPORT (IMM)

The easternmost public airport in Collier County is the second of three airports under the control of the Collier County Airport Authority. Drive through tiny downtown Immokalee, continue a little farther east and you’ll see the airport in the rural landscape off State Road 29.

The 1,333-acre airport is 35 miles northeast of Naples and 110 miles northwest of the Port of Miami, and has tremendous business advantages, Bennet said. It has a 5,000-foot runway, a 4,550-foot runway and a 400-acre industrial park. One airstrip doubles as an International HotRod Association drag strip on weekends—an indication that someone has talent for creating revenue.“

We have three projects ongoing at Immokalee,” Bennet says. “First, we are rehabilitating Runway 18/36, which was originally built in 1942.” The cost of the project is $7.7 million, according to bid details.

The airport also spent a reported $2.4 million on the Taxiway C extension project, which includes transportation, airfield signaling and control equipment.

“We just completed the construction of Taxiway Charlie, and there’s private party building three corporate commercial hangars at that airport,” he says. The modernizing and upgrades align with the county plans to draw commercial aeronautical/aviation/aerospace companies that support general aviation customers to its airports.

Immokalee’s rural nature provides opportunities, Bennet said. Immokalee Regional has a 60-acre Foreign Trade Zone, where businesses can leave goods and defer duties and taxes until they are shipped elsewhere. The airport is a Florida Rural Enterprise Zone as well as a U.S. Housing and Urban Development Empowerment Zone, offering tax incentives and other financial carrots to businesses. The idea is to provide incentives for minority businesses that can provide jobs. The FDOT believes Immokalee creates $39.1 million in economic impact every year.

EVERGLADES AIRPARK (X01)

In September 2020, Everglades Airpark received an FAA Improvement Program grant for nearly $300,000 for the design of the rehabilitation and widening of Runway 15/33. The total cost of the project is $2.7 million, according to bids for the project. The work includes the installation of transportation,airfield signaling and control equipment, runway identification lights and runway and taxiway inset lighting.

The airport, situated on the edge of the Everglades, is a perfect spot for drawing eco-tourists. With a 2,400-foot runway, the airpark is situated immediately southwest of the Big Cypress National Preserve, and is surrounded on three sides by the waters of Everglades National Park. The Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve and Collier Seminole State Park are to the north.

New upgrades are planed at Airglades International Airport.

LABELLE MUNICIPAL AIRPORT (X14)

This small, general aviation airport has an address that mirrors its rural quality: 311 Cowboy Way. However, it has big plans, says Rebecca Wise, the airport’s staff assistant.

In 2019, Hendry County hired Preferred Materials Inc. for the rehabilitation of the airport fueling apron. Contractors laid a 2-inch-thick surface of high-tech paving. LaBelle Municipal Airport’s terminal building is barely 2 years old; it was built in conjunction with the aircraft parking and fuel apron expansion. The FDOT provided $3.1 million and the FAA kicked in $2.5 million. Hendry County’s share: $21,300, according to Hendry County officials.

“It was an incredible opportunity for funding,” Wise says.

The airport serves the town of 5,339 residents, but the airport’s role in the local economy is going to grow. LaBelle, due east of FortMyers on State Road 80, is in the path of development along the Route 80 corridor. That’s why Hendry County sees LaBelle Municipal Airport and Airglades International as future players on the road that links Fort Myers with Clewiston and the agricultural region around Lake Okeechobee.

AIRGLADES INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT (21S)

Fred Ford, the man who convinced investors to take over the former Riddle Field near Clewiston, is no longer involved in daily operations, but the dream still exists: converting a general aviation airport into a privately owned logistics hub. According to Airport Manager Lillie Rentz, the $300 million project is jointly owned by three parties, with Florida Cargo Fresh having 49%, and 51% split between the U.S. Sugar Corporation and Hilliard Brothers, a diversified agricultural operation.

Investors are betting Airglades can compete with Miami International Airport, where fresh flowers, seafood and other perishables from Latin America land every day. Those importers need only fly a little farther to the northwest to find Airglades International.

The airport will build a new cargo complex with temperature control modules and chambers that properly chill fruit, flowers, vegetables and other fresh produce at the temps each require, Rentz said.

“Our expansion project will bring new air traffic,” she says. “The project entails adding a 10,000-foot run-way to accommodate larger aircraft. We hope to secure all remaining agreements and FAA approvals to meet the project’s anticipated completion date in late 2023 and welcome a first-of-its-kind privatized international cargo and logistics airport hub in the U.S.”

First things first, Rentz said: The airport needs to have contracts from importers and growers before it can spend the money. Once it has those contracts in hand, the company will begin marketing and then build the infrastructure.

The hope is that the first aircraft carrying fresh imports from Latin America will begin arriving in two years.

That’s OK with Ford, who says, “We have always known that there is room for an alternative to Miami International.”

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