Should the Punta Gorda Airport take the next step toward accepting private investment in exchange for profit sharing?
That is the issue before Charlotte County Airport commissioners Thursday.
If the commission decides to move ahead, the airport would be on a path to become only the third airport in the nation to accept this model.
The meeting is at 9 a.m. at 7375 Utilities Road, Building 313 by the airport.
Airport commissioners will be asked if they want to authorize consultant Vasey Aviation Group to draw up a contract to market to investor companies.
Commissioner Rob Hancik told the Sun he is skeptical of this deal, because so few airports have opted for it in the years that it has been an option. Many have considered it, including Chicago Midway, but almost all have abandoned it.
Andy Vasey said in an interview with the Sun, lack of political will is the reason why so few airports have followed through on this option.
It’s an opportunity that Commissioner Pam Seay and Vasey believe will allow the airport to start sharing profits with the whole county without giving up control of the quality of operations. If structured correctly, Andy Vasey said, the deal allows all employees to keep their jobs and the commission to keep oversight.
“We’re not selling anything,” said Seay.
Of the two U.S. airports now privatized, one is much larger and the other, much smaller. San Juan Airport in Puerto Rico is a large airport used by dozens of passenger airlines compared to Punta Gorda’s one, small airline.
In contrast, Airglades International in Clewiston is very small with no airlines. Its decision is in the final stages of approval by the Federal Aviation Agency.
A third airport, Missouri’s largest airport, Lambert International in St. Louis, this summer had its application to the FAA withdrawn by the mayor. Voters may be deciding instead through a ballot question.
Seay, who is leaving the commission after the election, said she has long been frustrated with federal regulations that require the airport to spend its profits only on the airport. This new model was intended to change that restriction for airports.
This will be the second presentation to the commission by Vasey. Vasey was the lead consultant in the Puerto Rico project in 2013 that earned the airport $615 million up front followed by the possibility of another $550 million in profit sharing over 40 years. The deal also earned the airport a promise of $1.4 billion in capital improvements in exchange for handing over operations to a Mexican firm, ASUR. Investment analysts debated whether Puerto Rico gave away too much in the deal.
In addition to ASUR, the Puerto Rico deal is backed by an investment company that handles, among other things, large pension funds from the U.S. and other nations. These investors gravitate toward infrastructure investments, Vasey told the Sun.
He anticipates that these kinds of companies would be interested in Punta Gorda’s airport, if the opportunity opened up.
That’s what happened in St. Louis until Mayor Lyda Krewson pulled the plug. She said there was not enough support for the plan. It was a plan left to her when the former mayor exited to be a consultant.
Unlike Punta Gorda’s airport, Lambert was $600 million debt, according to news reports.
Puerto Rico’s deal was also expected to help the debt-ridden territory some relief. The airport also suffered from management turnover every time a new political party took over, according to news reports.
The Airglades deal was spearheaded by the locally based U.S. Sugar. That powerhouse company and partners plan to take from Miami International Airport, a chunk of the perishable produce cargo market from South America. In that deal, the new company will be building a much bigger runway and storage facilities.
How could Charlotte County use the money?
Economic Development Director Dave Gammon had a few suggestions. One was investing in Allegiant Air’s stalled Sunseeker resort. The skeleton of the $370 million project sits idle today after airline profits tanked with the pandemic.
“I really don’t know if that would help restart the project or not, or even if Sunseeker would entertain an offer,” Gammon said in response to questions from the Sun, “but you never know.
“It should be an interesting discussion on Thursday,” he added.