By Gina M. Farthing
Special to the News Herald
Posted July 14, 2017
In fiscal year 2009, the airport’s operating revenue was $3.6 million. In fiscal 2016, revenue was $11.1 million. Job creation went from about 250 employees in 2010 to an estimated 800 people today.
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WEST BAY — When Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP) opened for business in May 2010, it offered only two airlines. Delta Air Lines had served the old Panama City-Bay County International Airport before its closure, and Southwest Airlines taxied into Panama City upon the new airport’s arrival.
“Delta provided service to Atlanta,” said Parker McClellan, ECP’s director since 2013. “Southwest started that May with service to Orlando, Houston, Baltimore and Nashville.”
Today, United Airlines also has joined the mix, flying to Houston. And in general, McClellan said, aviation is on the uptick with the airport’s Sheltair hangar and an increase in corporate hangars flying into the mix. The summer season also helps, after a typical slowdown in the winter months.
“We have 23 arrivals and 23 departures on Saturdays, the busiest day we have — our ‘Super Summer Saturdays,’ ” McClellan said. “Long-term growth will eventually provide for a crosswind runway.”
Among ECP’s greatest assets is its 10,000-foot runway, which has attracted not only airlines but other industry business.
“I’m excited at what (ECP) brought — a 10,000-foot runway. That’s a huge asset,” County Commissioner Bill Dozier said. “Companies will be able to bring more here because the runway allows more.”
More means additional people such as tourists, attention from businesses that provide jobs, dollars that provide funding for services, infrastructure and future area growth. Among the companies attracted was GKN Aerospace, a Britain-based aerospace manufacturing giant that committed to a new location in Bay County in February.
“GKN could have gone anywhere, but they came here because of the runway and room to grow,” Dozier said.
Becca Hardin of the Bay County Economic Development Alliance concurred. She recently returned from an aviation/aerospace show in Paris.
“We’re getting a lot of attention from GKN coming here,” she said. “I came away from the show with eight potential project leads. It was the buzz of the show.”
Hardin said GKN is the area’s anchor project for growth at the airport facility and that within five years, she predicts adjacent sites will be full of service companies clamoring to build hangars there.
With that 10,000-foot runway, the biggest of the biggest planes will be able to come,” she said. “They’ll be able to build wide-body hangars. A lot of our future will be looking at that.”
The airport also is eyeing additional large hangars for “aircraft repair, maintenance and overhaul,” McClellan said. It is part of the overall long-term strategy for economic development for Bay County.
Of course, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. There were initial concerns over the economic recession and Deepwater Horizon oil spill, both of which happened shortly before the airport opened. Plus, with plenty of room for potential growth at the new site, environmental issues were raised.
“There was hesitation, and there were pros and cons,” Dozier said. “There were workshops for the public to explain why the airport was relocating.”
McClellan said some issues from the old airport still aren’t fully resolved.
“Everything we do is the ‘first time’,” he said. “We have new data rather than the old airport information. We have to convince businesses it is a new airport not just the old one as far as how we market.”
That means expressing to businesses that NWFL Beaches International is a regional asset, as McClellan called it, “airline speed dating,” spreading a consistent message from the area.
The airport authority, he said, works continually to market the region to airlines, enhance its services to the community and put forth different opportunities, working with established relationships the old airport had beforehand and generating new ones.
“We’re continuing to meet with businesses to promote coming to the airport and coming to create jobs,” McClellan said. “They want to be adjacent to the property.”
The hard work is paying off, with revenue more than tripling since ECP’s opening. In fiscal year 2009, the airport’s operating revenue was $3.6 million with expenses at $2.9 million. In fiscal 2016, revenue was $11.1 million and expenses were $7.1 million. Job creation went from about 250 employees in 2010 to an estimated 800 people today.
Looking forward, money from the Deepwater Horizon Triumph fund and partnerships with area colleges, Career Source, Venture Crossing, Bay County and the Bay EDA are in the works to get jobs coming in, employees to staff them and tax dollars flowing.
“We’re a field of opportunities,” McClellan said.