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Commercial Real Estate
Business Observer Thursday, Jul. 8, 2021 6 months ago

Ready for Takeoff

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Pair of airports fuel up for a fast-coming surge in passenger traffic, with some $25 million in new projects.    
by: Beth Luberecki Contributor

As airports across the region handle an industry-wide resurgence in flying, both in commercial and general aviation, there’s a renewed sense of urgency on improving facilities.

A pair of those projects are in Southwest Florida. The Charlotte County Airport Authority, which owns and operates the Punta Gorda Airport, is building a new 13,000-square-foot general aviation center. Construction is expected to be completed in March 2022. That current phase, in conjunction with some other work, is an $18 million project so far, say airport officials. The Naples Airport Authority, meanwhile, recently began work on a major remodel of the general aviation terminal at Naples Airport, a $7.6-million project.

Renovations at the Naples Airport, which offers general aviation only, no commercial flights,  include upgraded office space for the Naples Airport Authority and exterior canopies inspired by the Southwest Florida coast. Improvements at the terminal’s facility for Naples Aviation, the airport’s sole fixed-base operator, will include an upgraded lobby, expanded passenger lounge and a marketplace for food and beverages. SchenkelShultz Architecture designed the terminal improvements and Owen-Ames-Kimball Co is the lead contractor. The project is entirely funded by airport revenues, and the general aviation terminal is expected to re-open ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Up the coast in Punta Gorda, the Charlotte County airport, which combines general aviation with a rapidly-growing commercial side dominated by low-cost flying leader Allegiant, is taking steps to grow and support all components of its business.

‘I think by the end of this year, we’ll be on par with 2019, which was our best year ever.’ James Parrish, Punta Gorda Airport

A 650,000-square-foot-ramp for aircraft parking is under construction on the north side of the airport, and 24 T-hangars plus several larger corporate hangars are in the permitting phase. There’s also about 100 acres available for development for services supporting general aviation, and the airport authority is already talking with an avionics company interested in building there.

Punta Gorda Airport CEO James Parish says a general aviation expansion has been in the pipeline for almost 12 years, but the funding hadn’t been there until recently. That’s a nod to Allegiant, which has announced at least three new destinations from the airport since February and now offers nonstop routes to at least 45 cities.

Parish says the onset of commercial airline services at the airport was not originally a seamless transition. But everyone now sees the benefits of having diversified operations, and the new general aviation center will provide the commercial airlines with more open land to play with near their terminal, including spots for two more overnight aircraft. “It’s a win-win for both sides,” says Parish.

“The great thing about having commercial aviation at the airport is that it allows us to do things for general aviation that we couldn’t have done without it,” adds Parish. “All of these things we’re doing are with funds that are generated from commercial service. Without it we were kind of stagnant for many years, barely being able to grow.”

The airport authority is currently requesting bids for a public full-service restaurant, bar and caterer at the general aviation center. It’s hoped that restaurateurs will see the potential of the 2,500-square-foot space that includes an event area with views of the airport’s active runways.

Though Parish says the “$100 hamburger” is a fixture of the general aviation community — “They all get together and fly to the nearest airport and have lunch,” he says, making it an expensive meal no matter the actual cost of the food — he knows that it will likely be difficult to convince restaurant businesses of the broader potential.

“The general aviation restaurant is a challenging animal,” he says. “Our benefit could be that we have a growing industrial park around us, and hopefully they will see more than just the general aviation user.”

The commercial aviation side of the airport ,of course, took a hit during the pandemic. Parish says the airport is still down between 10% and 20% from its 2019 numbers, when it saw 81,136 total takeoffs and landings, almost 11,000 of which were commercial flights. But the comeback is well underway. “I think by the end of this year, we’ll be on par with 2019, which was our best year ever,” he says.

Allegiant Air recently announced new flights to Baltimore from the airport, and Sun Country Airlines will begin service between Punta Gorda Airport and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in December. Parish hopes the relationships with both airlines will continue to grow, and he feels the airport is in good shape to do that.

“We have plenty of ticket counter space,” he says. “We’re sitting fairly well right now for space, and I think that will continue for the next couple of years. But we’re already in the early planning phases of the next terminal expansion and parking lot expansion. It’s a constant thing, and we want to make sure we have the documents ready when we need them.”

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