Forecast Looks Sunny & Clear for New Florida Airport

Author: 
Rebecca Kanable
Published in: 
July-August
2010




As the first international commercial airport to open in the United States in more than a decade, the $307 million Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP) has many success stories: Budgets were met. Deadlines were beat. And net environmental gains were achieved.

Beach balls were literally tossed into the air when Southwest Airlines announced it would begin service to the airport. Delta Air Lines then continued the celebration by expanding its service with larger planes. Since the airport opened May 23, business has been hot.








Northwest Florida Beaches International in West Bay, FL, is actually the reincarnation of Panama City Airport-Bay County International Airport, just 20 minutes east. The new airport with a new name is owned by the Panama City-Bay County Airport and Industrial District, an entity created by the Florida legislature that doesn't receive city or county tax dollars.

More than 20 years ago, the airport authority started discussing the need to expand the airport's two runways, which did not meet federal standards due to insufficient runway safety areas. Growing the overall airport to meet the region's needs was another main objective.

A master plan created by engineering consultant AVCON, INC. in 1996 recommended extending the former airport's existing runways to meet the community's projected air service demands.

"The only feasible way to extend the runways would have been into St. Andrew Bay," recalls Virgil "Lee" Lewis, P.E., regional manager for AVCON. Doing so, however, would have seriously impacted protected waters; so relocation emerged as the best option.

Lewis vividly recalls the day the airport's executive director, Randy Curtis, asked him what it would take to move the airport to a new site. AVCON subsequently worked on the initial feasibility study as well as the site selection study and other planning studies, and eventually designed many of the new airport's facilities.

The site selected for the new airport has ample room for three runways. Finding 10,000 feet for the yet-to-be-built longest one was not a problem. Once complete, the new runway will be a significant upgrade from the 6,300-foot primary runway at the former location.





The St. Joe Company, one of Florida's largest real estate developers and northwest Florida's largest private landowner, donated 4,000 acres within its West Bay Sector for the airport site. It also provided more than 9,600 acres for wetland mitigation. Company president and CEO Britt Greene says the new airport greatly improves domestic and international access to northwest Florida. St. Joe's 75,000-acre West Bay Sector now provides opportunities for businesses interested in air, land and sea access. The airport also enhances the value of St. Joe's 300,000 acres located within 40 miles of the airport.

 

Design of the new airport began in 1998 and changed, in part, as a result of 9/11. TSA awarded the airport a grant for a state-of-the-art inline baggage handling system from Logan Teleflex. Access points in the airport's security fence were minimized to enhance airfield security.





Facts & Figures

New Airport: Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport

Location: West Bay, FL

Replaces: Panama City Airport-Bay County International Airport

Owner: Panama City-Bay County Airport and Industrial District

Cost: $307 million

Terminal Complex Construction: $58 million

Total Acres: 4,000

Developed Acres: 1,300

Terminal Size: 125,000 sq. ft.

Longest Runway Planned: 10,000 ft.

Ground Breaking: November 2007

Opening: May 2010

Land Donor: The St. Joe Company

Commercial Real Estate Opportunities: Jones Lang LaSalle

Design Manager: PBS&J

Primary Planning & Design Services: PBS&J, AVCON, HNTB

Additional Planning & Design Support: Tilden Lobnitz Cooper, IMDC

Program Architects: JRA Architects, Southeastern Architectural Associates

Construction Management: KBR, GAC Contractors

Commissioning: Sebesta Blomberg & Associates, Inc.

Terminal Construction: Walbridge

Environmental Services: Lewis, Longman & Walker; Kimley-Horn and Associates

Environmental Testing: Entrix, Cardno TBE

Site Preparation Contractor: Phoenix Construction

Interior Design: Lori Bates Interiors

Lounge Seating: Carolina Seating

Gate Seating: KI

Baggage Claim Benches: OFS Brands

Plants: Heroman Services Plant Company

Mural Production: Eykon wallcovering

Baggage Handling: Logan Teleflex

Data Management: The Solution Design Group, Inc.

Financial Advisor: Infrastructure Management Group, Inc.

Underwriter: Morgan Keegan & Company, Inc.

Credit Provider: Regions Bank

Early Concerns

Not everyone liked the idea of building an airport in the wetlands so close to the bay. Environmental concerns eventually materialized as legal challenges, which the airport authority ultimately won.

The airport authority, the Bay County Commission and St. Joe worked to address environmental concerns using Florida's innovative sector planning. The large-scale, long-term land use plan for 75,000 acres in the county set aside approximately 39,000 acres for conservation, including nearly the entire shoreline of West Bay. To help preserve entire ecosystems, future development around the airport will be clustered, not piecemeal. Conservation buffers along rivers and creeks that feed into the bay are as large as 1,600 feet.

Darin Larson, P.E., program manager for project designer PBS&J, says the airport relocation project successfully balanced FAA design requirements for large modern airports with the need to be responsible and sustainable in an environmentally sensitive area.

"Many components of the project were intended to provide net benefits to the surrounding ecosystem," Larson notes.

The $307 million investment was another primary concern. "Convincing various agencies that the airport was really justified created some challenges - especially at the very beginning," Curtis recalls.

Some opponents questioned whether the airport would actually help the area. "Sometimes it's hard for people to visualize what the long-term benefits will be of a project like this," Larson explains.

But benefits began appearing before the new airport opened. The St. Joe Company provided revenue guarantees to help attract Southwest Airlines, a new carrier for the airport.

Trimming $10 Million

General contractor Walbridge built the terminal complex for $58 million. In addition to the passenger terminal, the complex includes an air traffic control tower, police and fire station, maintenance building, air freight building, rental car facility and utility building. The 125,000-square-foot terminal includes two restaurants, two retail shops, six car rental ticketing counters and an educational kiosk featuring photographs and informational materials from the Bay County Audubon Society.

Walbridge's original bid for the complex was $68 million. In August of 2008, the company was asked to trim $10 million from its plan - a task senior vice president David Hanson says took about two months.

"We used probably every conceivable method of what we call value management and value engineering," Hanson recalls. Some of the longest spans of the terminal structure were shortened; one bridge was built to the parking lot rather than three; stucco replaced masonry and select airport systems were simplified. A few terminal amenities were also deferred, including federal inspection service areas for the future international flight preboarding area. The space was built, explains Hanson, but the finishes were not completed.

On the airside, a refurbished passenger bridge is used in lieu of a new one. Because the refurbished bridge is similar to the two bridges at the former airport, maintenance will be simplified.

With the revised $58 million bid, Walbridge entered a contract in October 2008 with completion date of July 2010.

Sooner is Better

When the airport successfully negotiated an agreement with Southwest Airlines, the project's construction deadline was moved up.

"The date of May 23 came as somewhat of a surprise to us earlier this year," says Hanson, understating the ten-week schedule cut.

To meet the new deadline, Walbridge lengthened work hours and added second shifts. From January to May, the job was open seven days a week.

"Fortunately, we had a combination of good tradesmen and subcontractors and suppliers. Probably the only thing that didn't cooperate was the weather," says Hanson, referring to a rainy spring. "We're extremely proud that we finished earlier to meet the owner's expectations of having the first large jet service from that part of Florida."





Armed Services memorial collage at north baggage exit.  

Green Goods

The airport's passenger terminal was designed to attain Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Air conditioning systems were built to be extremely efficient; construction material waste was segregated on site to minimize what went into landfills; an aluminum roof reflects more of the sun's heat; and local wood and other materials were used to reduce fuel burned transporting goods from farther way.

"The entire airport was designed with the idea of making it as environmentally friendly and progressive as possible," Larson says. "It certainly will pay off dividends for the airport in the future, as they have increased efficiency and reduced operational costs."




Downstairs snack bar.

Early in the project, the airport authority decided to treat stormwater to meet the Outstanding Florida Water runoff standards, which are about 50% higher than state requirements.

Achieving that standard has not been easy, notes Jeff Dealy, program manager of construction management firm KBR. Dealy cites six specific reasons why:

1. The project received 12.5 inches of rain above normal in 2009 and six inches above normal in 2010.

2. The soils on site are sand and silt, which are easily erodible.

3. Stormwater leaving the site could not be any more turbid (muddy or murky) than the water coming onto the site from natural undeveloped lands.

4. Site stabilization plans called for seeding with Bermuda grass, a slow-growing breed, instead of sod. Faster growing grasses could not be considered due to FAA requirements.




Main lobby seating area.

5. The soils for grass areas were deemed sterile by three universities; determining the proper amount of soil amendments took additional time.

6. Space for stormwater storage and treatment was limited.

Although the process has been difficult and was not complete when the airport opened, Curtis says the system will be state-of-the-art and exceed regulatory requirements.

Obtaining environmental permitting was another challenge.

"To successfully permit and construct a project like this in today's world is a huge challenge," Larson says. "It takes a lot of people working very hard over a long period of time to make it a reality."

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and the airport authority hired Entrix as a third-party environmental consultant. Cardno TBE, a subconsultant to Entrix, provided engineering support to the daily site evaluations and turbidity monitoring of the stormwater management system. It also evaluated whether the best management practices were being followed during construction. Angela Huggins, P.E. with Cardno TBE, notes that these findings allowed the FDEP and airport authority to feel confident that state regulations were being observed.





Terminal in progress.

Surf's Up

Materials and finishes denoting Florida's white sandy beaches and ocean waves abound throughout the terminal interior.

"We wanted to make the terminal design reflective of this area," Curtis explains.

Lori Bates Interiors of Panama City is credited for creating "an authentic northwest beaches look."




Escalators to/from planes

The ticket counter features Capri shells. A metal canopy over the check-in desk and metal mesh put a contemporary twist on fishing net. A restaurant at the center of the first floor has a bar made with seaweed. And a grab-and-go restaurant on the second floor is decorated with thatched straw like a beach hut.

Three 15-foot palms greet visitors entering the terminal; various coastal plantscontinue the theme.

A blue, green, teal and aqua tile floor denotes ocean waves under the skylights. Light beige terrazzo tile with sand-like flecks represent miles of white sandy beaches. Light blue and green poured terrazzo forms waves. The walls are painted with Quietude, a soft green from Sherwin-Williams.




Arriving/departing concourse

"The name says it all," says Bates.

Surfboard shaped charging stations custom built by Collins Classic Furniture can be found in three of the seven gate areas. One-third of the gate seats also have electrical outlets.

Ceilings with a light maple wood slat appearance continue the nature-based palette.

Eykon Wallcovering used environmentally friendly materials for large-scale murals.

"From birding to the total environment" is the theme of one 20-foot square mural that uses photos from hundreds of local wildlife enthusiasts to promote the work of the Audubon Society.

Another work in the baggage claim area honors America's Armed Forces and acknowledges their contribution in the development of Florida's panhandle. OFS Brands showed its support of the military with a donation of furniture for the airport's military lounge.




Snack bar/lounge in concourse area

The chambers of commerce, tourist development councils and Bates worked together to create murals representing the entire northwest Florida beaches area. Six murals show the beauty of Franklin, Bay and Walton counties to visitors taking an escalator or walking up terrazzo stairs to the second level. Photos of industry, education, golf, fishing, dining, shopping, beaches and more create 17-foot-by-15-foot works of art.

"We hope to educate and demonstrate the beautiful area in which we live, work and play," explains Bates.

Managing the Process

KBR scheduled, coordinated and facilitated the construction performed on time and under budget by six general contractors under seven contracts. KBR also coordinated with the various stakeholders (FAA, FDOT, TSA, airlines, rental cars, gift shop, restaurant) to ensure their facilities were built on time and to their satisfaction.




Custom built charging stations can be found in three of the seven gate areas.

Weekly communication, the integration of all contractors into one cohesive team and close communication with the client led to a successful result, says Dealy.

Given the magnitude of the project, the airport's finance and management staff had their hands full managing data. On May 20, for instance, the airport was managing 26 contracts, 381 purchase orders, 2,307 invoices and 75 organizations (vendors, contractors, funding agencies). CapitalVision, a capital program financial management system from The Solution Design Group, Inc., helped the airport handle it all.

Unlike the spreadsheets the staff previously used, CapitalVision provides functionality, flexibility and efficiency to help manage the project within budget and ensure that monies were spent appropriately, explains Tom Strange, president and CEO of The Solution Design Group. CapitalVision was used to monitor the budget, track expenses and provide the necessary detail required in the funding outlay.





The control tower superstructure was built on the ground and erected in one lift to save time.

Ready for Growth

According to Curtis, the level of passenger traffic at the new airport has been a pleasant surprise.

"We've been extremely busy," he says. "Many of the flights are selling out."

Before first month statistics were available, Curtis believed traffic was up based on anecdotal feedback from the airlines and his own personal inkling. When he tried to book a flight to Orlando, there wasn't a seat available.

With the parking lot operating nearly at capacity (95% to 100%), parking expansion will be among the first airport improvement projects, reports Curtis.

The airport's current challenges are accommodating higher passenger volumes, keeping up with new demand and meeting the aviation needs for the region - good problems to have, he adds.

The new airfield, notes Lewis, has plenty of room for growth, with protected land and airspace to allow for additional runway construction. It was designed to fill the airport's needs for 50 or more years.

A unique opportunity to plan for balanced, long-term growth around the airport will serve the local community and region well into the future, Larson relates. "They've really done a good job of planning the development around the airport to make sure that residential communities, for example, aren't developed in areas where they would be bothered by aircraft noise," he explains.

The initial airport development is on 1,300 of 4,000 total acres. Other areas of the 75,000-acre West Bay Sector Plan will include a regional employment center, airport-related businesses and office buildings. In addition, The St. Joe Company has launched a new




Laminated timber and galvanized steel canopy structure.

commercial development adjacent to the airport. VentureCrossings Enterprise Centre offers through-the-fence access within the first 1,000 acres. Direct runway entryways are expected to be attractive to distribution and logistics firms as well as light industrial and manufacturing businesses.

"There's a lot of land available for aviation-related and non-aviation-related industries," Larson says. "This facility will probably be the most significant driver in growth and economic health in the region for several decades."

Sounds like Northwest Florida Beaches International plans to add a few more chapters to its current success story.




 

New Airport Taps Public & Private Funds

Financing a small airport can be a big challenge, says Randy Curtis, executive director of Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (the renamed, relocated Panama City Airport-Bay County International Airport).

With no local tax dollars used to build the new airport, a combination of public and private funds were secured. Infrastructure Management Group, Inc. (IMG) created the plan to finance the $307 million overall cost.

The Panama City area, notes IMG vice president Sasha Page, has largely been a "drive market" - a destination many visitors drive to rather than fly. That means there's enormous potential for a new airport. The previous airport, however, had only 155,000 enplaned passengers last year.

"It was hard from a financial perspective to say, 'If we built it, they will come,' " Page explains.

A number of factors combined to make the new airport a financial reality, relates Louis Wolinetz, senior manager with IMG. A local company donated the land. The State of Florida provided grants of more than $100 million and made available up to $45 million in state infrastructure bank loans. On the federal level, the FAA contributed about $80 million in AIP funds and the TSA provided funding for the baggage handling system.

"You can get a lot done when you have a good project and a lot of support from your partners," notes Wolinetz. "We have excellent banking relationships, which enabled us to borrow funds even in a tough financial market for a construction loan. Developing those relationships and having that broad spectrum support were critical for a project of this nature."

The sale of the former 714-acre airport property funded about 20% of the new airport.

"That's pretty unusual," Page says, noting the current housing and real estate markets. The site was sold about two and a half years prior to the new airport's debut, with the deed transfer scheduled shortly after the previous airport is closed to general aviation traffic.

According to Page, the state infrastructure bank loan, which is often used to fund highways, was also a bit unconventional; but the long-term loan was essential given that small airports have a difficult time issuing debt in today's capital markets.

Morgan Keegan & Company Inc. underwrote the debt for the project and closed $80 million of bonds to be used for construction. Security for the bonds was split based on the drawn proceeds - the initial draws were backed by the land sale of the old airport; later draws were backed by net airport revenues and passenger facility charges.

"Since the airport does not have an investment-grade underlying rating, we needed credit support for a bond issue, and Regions Bank stepped up with a letter of credit, which enabled Morgan Keegan to sell the variable rate bonds to investors," explains D.J. Mehigan, managing director with Morgan Keegan & Company. "This was the final leg of the funding sources and came at an all-in cost of less than 4%."

Project financing was kept to a very tight budget, Page relates. "Everyone was focused on cost and managing those costs the entire process," he says.

Subcategory: 
Terminals

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