Panama City West Bay: A New Start

Panama City - Bay County International Airport’s management team believes it has the potential to become the world’s first carbon-neutral airport. (All - St Joe)

In Florida, a new airport is emerging which has the blessing of environmentalists as well as accountants.  Tom Allett explains.

Panama City - Bay County International Airport’s management team believes it has the potential to become the world’s first carbon-neutral airport. (All - St Joe)

These days it’s pretty rare to hear of an all-new airport being carved out of the middle of a forest.  And when you hear that the work is being done with the blessing of local environmental groups, it becomes the kind of story unheard of in recent years.
The location of this unusual project is Northwest Bay County, in the heart of Florida’s famous ‘Panhandle’, and the name of the emerging facility is Panama City – Bay County International Airport.  Although the airport is the focus of this story, it forms part of a far-reaching programme for the entire area.  In a nutshell, the project involves establishing a 41,000-acre (16,590-ha) West Bay Preservation Area, which will move that amount of environmentally-sensitive of land ‑ which includes 33 miles (53km) of West Bay shoreline and 44 miles (71km) of rivers and tributaries ‑ into protection in perpetuity.
 
Background
Those who have always lived in the area may remember that criticism of Panama City’s airport goes back at least a generation, as can be seen from the front page editorial of the Panama City News Herald of January 24, 1946.
“Panama City, which prides itself in being a progressive forward-looking city, has a so called municipal airport which would do credit to a village of 63 persons which doesn’t know the Civil War is over…
“The nearest true commercial airports are 100 miles away in Tallahassee and Pensacola.  We vitally and urgently need a commercial airline because our airlines connections now are very, very poor.
“And to get such an airline, we need a fine airport.  We have a situation that should be corrected at the earliest possible moment – not in 1947 or 1948, but in 1946.”
Well, a new airport was built in 1948 and the major carriers did arrive, but its relatively short runway, restricted by an upmarket residential area at one end and the waters of Goose Bayou at the other, means that even today’s airliners have performance issues there.  Inevitably their operators are limited in terms of the potential aircraft types they can use and the payload they can carry.
In 1996 the airport authority completed a Master Plan that envisaged increasing the 14-32 runway’s overall length and that of its safety areas (RESAs) at both ends.  The airport’s management team subsequently launched an Environmental Assessment (EA) to consider alternatives to extending the runway, but in the end it recommended that the landing strip be extended out into the adjacent Goose Bayou.  These waters are protected by state law, and subsequent analysis determined that the proposals would have had a significant adverse effect on the bay.  Many interested parties expressed concern about whether the likely damage could be solved by mitigation and eventually the project was dropped as being unworkable.
The total cost of the project is approximately $318 million, with funds coming in equal one-third shares from the federal and state governments and airport authority revenues. No local taxes will be used.

In 1998 thoughts turned towards relocating the airport to another site.  The airport authority approached the region’s biggest landowner, the St Joe Company, to find out if it would be prepared to donate some nearby undeveloped land that could accommodate a new airport.
At the time, St Joe owned nearly 1 million acres.  It now owns 600,000 acres (242,000 ha) of land between the towns of Tallahassee and Pensacola.  Local legend has it that during the 1960s Walt Disney offered the boss of St Joe a deal that would transform some of its land into a theme park.  The offer was turned down and ultimately Mr Disney moved his plans south to Orlando.  The rest, as they say, is history.
The airport authority made more progress than Walt Disney had managed to do, and work towards creating a new airport pushed ahead.  By the end of 2001, with support from the FAA and the Florida Department of Transport, the airport authority was focused on developing the West Bay Sector.  A 75,000-acre (30,350-ha) site in the northwest of Bay County that included 41,000 acres identified as conservation land.  After almost five years of studies, public hearings and permit acquisitions, the plan for the airport’s relocation was approved, with the caveat that the conservation land would be exempt from any kind of redevelopment in the future.
As the crow flies, the site eventually chosen for the new airport was around 14 miles (22km) to the northwest of the existing facility across the waters of West Bay.  For those who know Florida, the new site lies north of County Highway 388, approximately five miles west of State Highway 77.
After its design was finalized in 2007, construction was backed by a $26 million grant from the FAA, along with a promise to increase its investment to at least $72 million, plus another $7 million that could be made available through its entitlement grants programme.
With the new facility’s future determined, the existing airport’s land was then sold to a subsidiary of the Leucadia National Corporation for $56.5 million (in cash) plus an estimated £38 million raised from revenue earned from the sale of future properties to be developed on the site.
 

This is the second new-build commercial service airport in the post 9/11 era: the other is at Branson, Missouri.

Concept

The new airport anchors the West Bay Sector plan, a 75,000 acre (30,375ha) large-scale long-term land use plan, making it one of the largest mixed use communities planned in the United States.  The airport will be built on approximately 1,300 acres (913 ha) of a 4,000-acre (1,617ha) segment of the land, estimated as sufficient to handle any expansion requirements it may have for the next 50 years.
The St Joe Company owns the vast majority of the land in the West Bat sector outside the airport land that they donated to the local airport authority.  Phase 1 of the development in the West Bay Sector involves building the airport and the first stage of an adjacent business centre, on Joe land, containing mainly office and retailing space.  Phase 2 would extend the centre by around 200%, adding industrial and warehousing facilities, and the final stage would add some 515 acres (208ha) of land as a regional employment centre.
Within the West Bay Sector, Joe currently has entitlements for around 3.4 million sq ft (315,000m2) of industrial, commercial and retail space, approximately 27,000 residential units, and 900 marina berths.
 
Green Credentials
The fact that the agreement concerning the new airport’s development will in turn safeguard the future of a huge adjoining area of sensitive land and shoreline has helped to allay any environmental concerns.
However, the airport’s ‘green’ credentials go further than that.  Its owners say that the 120,000 sq ft (11,148m2) seven-gate terminal will be among the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified terminals in the US and that Panama City – Bay County has the potential to become one of the world’s first carbon neutral airports.
As the future airport will not have the local community sited at its boundary fence, it will not be subject to noise curfews, and operational hours will be set to meet customers’ needs.  On-demand customs and immigrations services will be provided 365 days a year, and part of the new airport site, as well as adjacent land, is expected to be designated as a new Foreign Trade Zone.
 

Construction work began in 2007. The airport is set to open on May 31, 2010, and the plan is currently ahead of schedule.

Construction

By the end of 2007 construction work was underway on the new site, and the completion date is set for the spring of 2010.
The total cost of the project is approximately $318 million, with funds coming in equal one-third shares from the federal and state governments and airport authority revenues.  Importantly from the view of winning local ‘hearts and minds’, no local taxes will be used.
The US Department of Transport awarded the airport authority a $575,000 grant to help its existing airlines expand their services and attract a based low-cost carrier.  That amount was boosted by $529,500 in cash and in-kind contributions from the local business community.
By the middle of last year, all Phase 1 clearance work had been completed on the 1,330-acre site and a two-mile (3.2-km) long main access road had been created.  More than 1.8 million cubic yards (764,554m3) of material had been dug out and redistributed over the site.  Initially the new airport will have an 8,400 x 150ft (2,560 x 4m) runway, but this can be extended to 10,000 x 150ft (3,048 x 45m) if deemed necessary and the appropriate permits are obtained.  A 5,000ft (1,524m) crosswind runway is also under consideration and a $4.5 million state grant is available to fund such operational enhancements.
Several huge military establishments are situated relatively close.  The United States Air Force’s Tyndall base lies around 12 miles (19km) to the east of Panama City, while its Eglin facility is approximately 50 miles (80km) to the west.  The Mobile, Pensacola and Whiting Field Naval Air Stations all lie to the west of Panama City, while the US Army’s primary helicopter training base – Fort Rucker – is just a short flight almost due north into the State of Alabama.  The volume of military flights generated by these facilities led to a special air corridor being created in order to avoid potential air traffic conflicts.
The local military presence is seen as having two major benefits.  First, the number of personnel stationed at these bases, and their families, are all potential passengers for whatever passenger services can be attracted.  Secondly, the unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) being developed in the region will use the new airport’s runway during test flights, so bringing in revenue.
As this is only the second new-build commercial service airport to be built in the post 9/11 era (the other being Branson, Missouri), it will be used as a test site for US Navy security technologies developed by the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Panama City.
 
Chicken and Egg
However, one of the biggest worries for any developer is the question of ‘If we build it, will they use it?’  Will these extensive plans produce an economic powerhouse for Florida and beyond or, as the world is in a recession, is there a danger of it becoming a ‘white elephant’?
Initially the new airport will have an 8,400 x 150ft (2,560 x 45m) runway, but this can be extended to 10,000 x 150ft (3,048 x 45m) if deemed necessary and the appropriate permits are obtained.

The strategic location of this state-of-the-art airport; with the deep water port at Panama City and major national rail and road links all nearby, ensures that the entire West Bay ‘package’ is being sold in the same way as most other international ‘airport city’ or ‘aerotropolis’ developments, as ‘Everything you could need is here’.
Some of the other airports serving the area have already taken steps to try and avoid the new Panama City – Bay County Airport being recognised as the place to fly from.  The former Pensacola Regional Airport has changed its name to Pensacola Gulf Coast Regional Airport, while the former Oscaloosa County Regional Airport has been re-named as Northwest Florida Regional Airport.  Tallahassee already has its ‘Regional’ title, but with the potential for a 10,000ft runway, Panama City’s long-term ambitions are international.
Jerry Ray, Senior Vice President of the St Joe Company, is upbeat about the project’s future, telling Airports International: “Northwest Florida has been underserved and underutilized for decades.  But with this new airport we will be bringing together all of the region’s assets with a visionary long-term plan.  The new airport’s strategic location, proximity to port, rail and road connections – and most importantly, proximity to 100 miles of the world’s most beautiful beaches – give us a great chance for success.  Projects like these require patience, but as the economy turns, I believe the logic and compelling advantages of this new airport will win the day. I think that a decade from now, people will look back and realize what a great ‘ground floor’ opportunity this is.  Like investing in Google six years ago.”