The Apalachicola Regional Airport has about as strong, and unified, support as it has had in years, with the county commission solidly behind a newly created advisory board empowered to weigh in on the airport’s future.
The commissioners each chose a representative, not necessarily from their district, to sit on the Airport Operation and Economic Development board, together with two alternates.
Ottice Amison, in whose district the airport sits and who, in contrast to the other commissioners, has to reconcile neighborhood issues related to the airport, went with the choice of a St. George Island businessman with a knowledge of airport issues dating back to his days working with the FAA on Long Island, as well as a high-profile reputation for not shying away from vocally challenging the commission on airport issues.
Amison appointed Steve Kirschenbaum, stressing that he saw an opportunity to put his enthusiasm for the airport to work. At the organizational meeting last week, Kirschenbaum’s colleagues on the AOED board voted him chairman, so that speaks to their regard for the commissioner’s choice.
“We’ve asked people to come out and sit on these boards and sometimes they’re just doing it because one of the commissioners asked them to,” Amison said. “These folks came out and submitted applications to sit on this board. They’re going to be motivated to be a part of it.”
Jessica Ward went with BJ Neshat, a hangar aircraft and propeller mechanic, and a licensed airplane inspector from the Federal Aviation Authority.
Noah Lockley placed Apalachicola resident Tom Mescher, a flight instructor and past commander of a civil air patrol unit, on the board, and he was selected vice chairman.
Cheryl Sanders opted for Mark Nobles, who had served on the county’s airport board before it was dissolved by the commissioners. He used to manage the Carrabelle Airport, and flew for the Florida Marine Patrol’s search and rescue.
Chairman Ricky Jones selected Andrew Shoaf, an avid pilot who rents a hangar at the airport. He’s also the brother of State Rep. Jason Shoaf, and lives and works in Gulf County.
There are also two alternates the commissioners chose. Neil Nichols, a commercial pilot who was born in Apalachicola and inspired by the local airport in his youth, flew thousands of hours for Northwest Airlines before the merger with Delta.
“It shows what an airport can do for impressionable young people,” Kirschenbaum said.
They also placed Ken Weeks, who runs the drone program in the Franklin County Schools, on the board as an alternate. “He’s an incredible link between the school district and the airport,” he said.
Amison is enthusiastic about the prospects of the new board, which met Tuesday, its first order of business to complete a review of a proposed five-year renewal of the lease with Centric Aviation, the airport’s fixed base operator.
“These are seven people with aviation knowledge, some aren’t pilots. They are a collective group that knows and understands aviation,” he said. “They can communicate with AVCON (the county’s airport advisor) and they’re already in discussion with Erin (Griffith, the county’s fiscal manager and grants coordinator).
“We want them to bring us some ideas and recommendations,” said Amison. “At the end of the day, none of us have any aviation knowledge, and that’s what was lacking in the county. We don’t understand the intricate workings of an airport and the more eyes we have on something, the better informed decisions we can make as a county.
“I think we’ve got a good group of guys,” he said.
The commissioner said he believes there is a consensus of support for keeping Centric, as the commission awaits an AOED recommendation on the terms of the contract, which expired in October.
“Everybody I’ve spoken with has told me ‘We want you all, we love the job they’re doing out there,’” he said. “Centric is doing a great job; no one wants to see them go away.”
One issue that has to be clarified in a new contract concerns the rental of the earliest-built T-hangars, which Centric had been collecting rent on.
County Coordinator Michael Moròn said that while the county must be the entity collecting rents on any hangars built with the assistance of state and federal grants, the T-hangars had fallen into a gray area because they are believed to have been built without the aid of government grants. He said the new contract will address a needed clarification as to how hangar rents will be collected.
Attracting economic development to the airport is a bit more thorny, since the county has had not quite robust success in this regard.
“We need to get some industries out there,” said Amison, making clear that he hopes the new board can drill down and transform random ideas into concrete realities.
“I don’t know exactly what jobs we can create out there,” he said. “But if we can create four or five jobs, for four or five families, we’ve done something.”
Kirschenbaum said once the new Centric contract recommendation is complete, the next order of business will be to coordinate with Ted Mosteller, the interim airport manager, along with the county commission and county staff on creating a proper chain of command for the airport.
“There has to be one voice to all the agencies involved,” he said. “Our task overall is to preserve and protect the infrastructure and create industry and jobs at the site while being friendly to the surrounding community.”