The Des Moines Register
December 19, 2016
Cargo may add 1,000 jobs to Clewiston's Airglades Airport
By Casey Logan
A “game-changing” plan quietly taking shape over the past eight years in Clewiston, 55 miles east of downtown Fort Myers, is nearing a critical milestone.
Airglades Airport, established in 1942 to aid in the war effort, could by 2020 or sooner be home to a massive perishable operation that would attract businesses to fly in flowers, seafood, vegetables and other cargo from South America and send items such as auto parts on flights back.
If everything goes to plan, a handling facility as large as 1 million square feet will be constructed that could bring more than 1,000 jobs to the 2,850-acre airport.
Total cost of the airport operation is expected to be $460 million. The cost of a new 10,000-foot runway, along with a parallel taxiway, is estimated to cost $200 million, with the remaining dollars tied to the building, control tower and other costs.
Federal dollars could be used to help fund runway construction. Financing otherwise would most likely come from tax-exempt revenue bonds. No passenger operation is planned.
All that’s according to Fred Ford, an airport executive and consultant with five decades of experience who has been the force behind the effort since its inception in 2008.
Nearby U.S. 27 is the least utilized highway in the south part of the state and the cost of doing business and living in Clewiston is cheaper than Miami.
“You couldn’t pick a better spot,” Ford said. “The economics work.”
Among the Airglades advantages he cited, compared to Miami:
· A shorter turnaround time because there will be plenty of space to operate
· No passenger traffic equals no on-the-ground delays
· An absence of truck traffic makes it easy to maneuver
The all-under-one-roof perishable building would include space for loading the cargo and be built for ease of inspections. Airplanes would fly into a cool building, which is important to preserve the quality of the fragile flowers flown in from Colombia and Ecuador.
Once on American soil, flowers and other commodities are trucked to destinations all over the country, as well as Canada.
As Miami International Airport becomes busier, Ford said, the amount of perishable items it can handle is approaching capacity. Airglades is seen by Ford and others as a way to relieve some of that traffic.
The visionary, politically-savvy Ford is president of Airglades International Airport LLC and president and CEO of Florida Cargo Fresh, a consortium of players that includes U.S. Sugar and Hilliard Brothers.
The critical milestone mentioned earlier involves securing approval from the Federal Aviation Administration on the final version of an environmental assessment, expected to be submitted by year’s end. Ford hopes to have a decision by March, though it might not come until the second quarter.
If and when FAA approval is secured, which Ford called “the cornerstone to move forward,” planning, engineering and negotiating agreements with potential users can begin, followed by preliminary planning and costing.
Ford, who seems to see opportunity where others see obstacles, often takes a different approach.
When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service brought up a concern involving the snail kite, an endangered species in the Florida Everglades, Ford took the matter in stride. He did the same when the agency made flight-profile suggestions.
“I’ve been doing this 50 years,” he said. “Debating the regulations is a flawed strategy. We try to resolve rather than debate.”
Ford is the former manager of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, Boston's Logan International Airport and director of aviation for the Massachusetts Port Authority.
When Ford first looked at the Airglades possibility eight years ago, he saw what most people would consider a long road to an eventual solution. His lengthy airport experience told him it would take time.
By 2010, U.S. Sugar and Hilliard Brothers were on board and Florida Cargo Fresh with its “growers serving growers” mantra soon formed. Checks to cover initial costs totaled $375,000. By 2016, checks totaling more than $5 million had been written.
It took four years to learn the needs of various players, from flower brokers to truckers, working to gain their trust and show them the project’s economic benefits.
Miami International Airport is the nation’s busiest airport for perishable freight, handling more than 66 percent of all U.S. perishable imports in 2015.
Miami-Dade Aviation Department Director Emilio Gonzalez does not support the Airglades effort. Gonzalez provided a statement through the department’s communications director.
Department staff have met with Airglades International Airport LLC representatives on various occasions to discuss the concept, and has met separately with Florida Department of Transportation and FAA staff.
“During these meetings, MDAD has clearly outlined why it believes that AIA’s proposed cargo hub would not work in Clewiston,” according to the statement. “Consequently, MDAD does not support or endorse the development of Airglades into a cargo hub.”
The statement goes on to say that Miami-Dade County is already served by a system of county airports that provide a reliever function to Miami International and that are better positioned to provide such a function to the international airport if such needs arise.
“MDAD does not support, need, nor is it seeking Airglades as a reliever to MIA,” the statement continues. “With approximately 3.9 million square feet of warehouse/cargo handling space, MIA is not experiencing any cargo capacity shortages.”
Even if there is a surge in cargo activity, the director said there is a plan to address it.
“There is a master plan process under way that will help the county define near-term and long-term cargo handling facility needs, and ensure MIA’s ability to continue being an international air cargo leader,” according to the statement.
“It’s a normal reaction,” Ford said in response. “We’re not in their political jurisdiction. They have concern that even if we agree to the perishables, we may try to steal passenger business on the future, but that’s not the case. We understand their position. We respect it.”
“The perishable industry ultimately will decide where they want to have their home,” he added. “Most of them are not tenants at Miami airport.”
Flowers is a growth industry. Several of the largest flower growers in the world, which Ford declined to name, have committed to shipping out of Clewiston if the project is built.
The president of a major Miami-based importer and distributor of fresh-cut flowers to North America who declined to be quoted said if the project comes to fruition and it makes economic sense, he would be interested to fly all his company’s cargo eventually destined for California into Airglades.
If the Airglades plan becomes reality, it would be a tremendous boost for a part of Florida that needs it most.
Hendry County: Beyond sugar and citrus
Hendry County’s unemployment rate typically leads the state. It stood at 9.7 percent in October, the most recent data available. The citrus industry, a significant economic driver, has been in decline for years.
“This is a game changer for a county that hasn’t won anything big in a long time,” Ford said.
Charles Chapman, county administrator, said he’s looking forward to hearing what folks think during a public hearing expected in late January.
“We welcome their feedback,” he said. “Everything we’re seeing in terms of the impact of this project is going to be positive for Hendry County.”
Chapman acknowledged it has been a slow process to reach this point, but sees it as a positive in the long run because it shows they have done quality due diligence. He noted the project is going through a third-party vetting process to prove to the industry it has been peer reviewed and is viable.
Malcolm “Bubba” Wade Jr., senior vice president for corporate strategy and business development at U.S. Sugar, said Florida Cargo Fresh and the county approached U.S. Sugar and Hilliard Brothers several years ago because they are major employers in the area.
“Our interest is we own some of the land around the airport and so do the Hilliards and it would enhance the value of the property,” he said. “From an economic standpoint we look at it as an obligation to help the county and the residents.”
There’s been a lot of groundwork done with the FAA on things such as projected aircraft levels, Wade said, as well as with perishable community in Miami.
“The big hurdles are kind of behind us, although we know we have to have the perishable community commit to come up here,” he said. “We could have construction started in 2017 and be done in 2018. A lot has to fall into place to do that.”
Ford said he and partners agree on most everything, other than how long it’s taking. If all goes to plan, he is targeting 2018 as the year to start construction, projecting it will take a year and a half to build. That timeline would make it operational by 2020 at the earliest.
“We got one shot at this and we’re going to do it right,” Ford said. “I really believe it will happen.”
Up in the air
Skydiving at Airglades Airport has a rich history dating back to 1962.
Although Rick Hornsby doesn’t go that far back, he has long owned and operated a skydiving business at the airport that is now called Skydive Spaceland.
“Taking off and landing is what we do all day every day,” he said, using the lone 5,900-foot runway.
Hornsby, 51, was born and raised in Clewiston. He remembers playing in the old barracks at the airport in the 1970s. His father retired from U.S. Sugar.
Hornsby managed the airport until recently, when Airglades International Airport LLC came in and Ford took over. Hornsby, who sits on the airport advisory board, is pleased with the transparency of the effort.
“I think it’s exciting for the county, exciting for everyone involved in it,” he said. “I’ve got to remain optimistic. They have kept us informed. They have relayed information to us that they are willing to work with us. The FAA has made clear they do have to work with us.”
Skydive Spaceland, which employs 26 people, intends to continue to grow.
“Their intent isn’t to run us off,” Hornsby said. “Their intent is to allow us to operate and hopefully we can all work together.”
America’s Gateway Logistics Center is a mixed-use industrial park in Glades County that features nearly 9 million square feet of available space within 770 acres.
Tracy Whirls, economic development director for the county, said the America’s Gateway project under development north of Moore Haven and the potential development at Airglades 9 miles south of the town “effectively makes Moore Haven golden.”
“Moore Haven is right between them and we’ve got some of the last undeveloped waterfront in the state of Florida,” she said. “As those large economic projects come in, the management teams are going to want to live on the water.”
The first tenant at America’s Gateway – a Love’s Travel Center – is expected to open by early February. Manufacturers and others are expected to follow. There is also a new, state-funded $3.5 million, 40,000-square-foot regional training center in Glades.
“We’ve always viewed the Airglades project as having a really good symbiotic relationship with what we’re trying to do,” Whirls said. “Historically, Hendry County and Glades County have worked together very closely. It can only be beneficial for us.”