A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

June 2012   

The Birth of an Airport 

Anyone who has looked at aviation charts from the U.S. and compared them with our Canadian maps, will notice that the number of airports south of the border is many times larger than what we have in this country.  And, in spite of efforts by COPA and others, the closures continue.  Buttonville and Edmonton Municipal are two major, busy facilities that support general aviation and will soon be closed.  Other major cities are upping the landing fees (Ottawa) and some are closing service to VFR flying (Vancouver). 

So it’s downright refreshing to hear that somewhere there are people actually taking the risks and spending the money to open an airport.  I found a newspaper article from a small town in Florida that tells the story of some forward-thinking city officials who put up about eight million dollars of taxpayers money to revitalize their waterfront and build a sea-plane base.  It all began in 2008, when in the depths of the recession, the town of Tavares on Lake Dora in the middle of the state was struggling economically.  The city leaders hosted “visioning sessions” to explore ways to revive the nearly vacant downtown.    A new city administrator, John Drury, had recently come aboard, bringing his experience as a pilot, innkeeper and airport administrator.  With that background Drury was able to envision what all pilots love to see. 

With an $8.3 million investment, the city set up the new airport, a 3,000-foot virtual runway on the lake, a ramp and tarmac, marina docks and an aviation-fueling station. Tavares also improved an adjacent park, constructed a water playground for children,  upgraded other facilities for festivals, and opened a souvenir shop.

Skeptics were vocal, questioning the wisdom of spending that much money while in a recession. But the gamble has paid off for the city of 14,000, bringing economic prosperity, new businesses opening, construction under way and a boom in tourism.  The facility was opened in April of 2010, and since then, over 3,400 seaplanes have visited, more than what had been predicted. The base has become a regular destination for Florida pilots and a rest stop for transient float planes.

The FAA has marked the base on navigational charts. It is now home to Jones Brothers & Co., a seaplane business offering tours and flight training. And partly because of the official seaplane-base designation, the city has attracted Progressive Aerodyne Inc., which makes the Searay amphibian aircraft, to set up shop there.  They have welcomed 26 new businesses, including eight successful restaurants.  Two boutique hotels are under construction, and the city now holds a busy schedule of boat races, fishing tournaments and aviation-themed events, all aimed at building a reputation as a haven for organized waterfront activities.

(Nanaimo Harbour Water Airport)

Seaplane pilots, in fact all pilots, are always looking for interesting weekend adventures and destinations. The economic development office in Tavares expects those areas and businesses that cater to aviators will see a tremendous amount of economic benefit.  By all measures the seaplane base has exceeded expectations.  Citing aviation-fuel sales, splash-park attendance and aircraft landings, city leaders expect the operation will break even or be profitable in just a few years. Residents support even more downtown improvements, giving recent approval of a $3.3 million bond issue to buy land that will expand the park.

As expected, there are those who complain about the noise.  But, because seaplanes can’t fly at night, nobody is losing sleep over them.  More importantly, the float planes have countless fans, just like here on the west coast of Canada.  Scores of visitors who dine in Tavares are there to watch arrivals and departures, says a company that’s opened three restaurants and is building the two hotels in the downtown corridor.  Watching the activity out there on the water is entertainment for the diners. 

A float-plane base obviously isn’t the answer for all struggling airport facilities.  But this story is such a refreshing bright spot I just had to pass it along.  It is proof that there are alternatives to high user fees, bans on general aviation, and outright closing of unprofitable airports.  All it takes is some thoughtful insight, some good ideas and the will to pursue another direction.  With all the waterways in Florida, the Tavares venture was bound to be successful.  And after reading all the bad news about the demise of so many of our airports, it’s a delight to see and hear good news like this.                                                                                           

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