By TED CARTER

Arcadian Business Correspondent

Forking over $32,500 to be shed of the longtime Fixed Based Operator at Arcadia Municipal Airport is proving a bargain for city officials.

The move made in October cleared the way for long-delayed investments and upgrades for the 400-acre airport created in the mid-1930s after the city bought the property at a tax sale. The airport is situated on the east side of Arcadia off SE Airport Road.

The most recent reward for taking back the airport came last week with U.S. Department of Transportation selection for a grant of $272,843 for a taxi-way. Only 10 entities in the state received the grants. Arcadia was the smallest airport to win one.

City officials say Arcadia Airport stagnated under the management of Eagle Vista’s flight-school owners Randy and Beverly Berry, but is on an upswing in terms of flights, fuel sales and overall popularity among general aviation pilots from inside and outside the region.

“Word-of-mouth travels fast in aviation,” said Shelley Peacock, a city hall veteran who became airport manager last fall after the city bought out the Berrys’ lease for $32,500.

The couple ran the Eagle Vista crop-duster flight school and served as the airport’s Fixed Based Operator, or FBO, for 11 years. The school is now in Inverness, a town 30 miles southwest of Ocala.

“We knew we could do a better job,” Peacock said. “We have proved that and then some.”

Peacock blamed much of the stagnation on the priority the Berrys put on their flight school over advancing goals for the airport.

“They really didn’t want traffic here,” Peacock said. “They didn’t want to be bothered with any activity.”

Especially during flight training on the runways, Peacock added.

Peacock and city hall are also trying to make up for lost opportunities in securing federal and state help to improve the airport.

“This airport has missed out in a lot of grant funding,” Peacock said. “I think it was because of not submitting any applications.”

The Florida Department of Transportation has reacted to the transformation by elevating the airport and grounds to a place among Florida’s top small general aviation airports. In this year’s FDOT competition for General Aviation Airport of the Year, the agency ranked Arcadia’s airport in the top seven for the award. Other finalists among the state’s 109 non-commercial airports included Naples Airport and North Perry Airport in Broward County. The winner will be announced in August.

“These are big airports we’re competing with,” Peacock noted. FDOT “has seen our reports and know how good we are,” she added.

In making the award, FDOT assesses an airport’s safety, runway conditions, security of the airfield, signage and marking aesthetics, general appearance and friendliness and efficiency of airport staff.

Other factors assessed are innovative programs, financial stability, optimum use of resources and knowledge of state and federal rules. A final requirement, a master plan, is reviewed for adequacy and up-to-date elements. Arcadia completed its airport master plan in 2016.

Arcadia Airport also has found new popularity among pilots for a good reason: cheap gas.

“We are the lowest in the state,” Peacock said. “People come from all over to fuel up.”

Many other airports charge $2 more per gallon, according to Peacock.

The concentration on a volume business has led to monthly average sales of 12,000 gallons, far surpassing the monthly 200 gallons under the previous FBO, the airport manager said.

It helps that the airport does not charge landing fees, thus easing the costs for the pilot on a fuel run. The airport operates as an enterprise fund on a budget this year of $103,000 supported solely by revenues the airport generates, according to the city.

With its paved runway of 3,700 feet and new turf runway of 2,780 feet, the airport accommodates everything from a Cessna Citation jet to a Piper Cub.

The airport has gained further appeal from the fly-in/campout grounds dubbed “Aviation City,” a moniker Arcadia received in World War II for the extensive military flight training that went on here. Established by Friends of Arcadia Airport, the campsites can be reached from the taxiway, allowing the pilot to park among the oak trees. They offer electricity, running water, refrigerator, restrooms, hot-water showers, cooking grills and a Friends of the Airport courtesy van available to all fliers during the day and to campers after hours.

And there’s free firewood.

The increased popularity has resulted in the airport putting up a “No Vacancy” sign for the hangar rental business. All 300 of the T-hangars are leased but a waiting list is available. They rent for $300 a month.

“We are showing the need for two more rows of T-hangars,” said Peacock, with each row having 10 to 20 hangars.

The airport also needs five box hangars that would be 60-feet-by-60-feet, she said.

“We have grants to bring in water” for the planned new hangars, Peacock said.

The grants from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity would extend water lines from Airport Road to the other side of the runways, she said.

“The water we have out here is limited” in terms of water pressure, she added. “We’re at the end” of the line.

The new eight-tenths of a mile taxiway funded by the federal grant will give access to hangars set up for commercial operations. “Right now, they taxi on a road we share with vehicles,” Peacock said. “It is not safe at all.”

The turf runway, meanwhile, has undergone nearly $1 million in drainage improvements, she noted.

The airport hopes to draw more commercial tenants and flight schools as it continues its upgrades and expansions. But it only wants to grow to a point, Peacock said.

“We don’t want to grow too big.”

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