Airport Improvements Include Advanced Navigation

Gene Conrad

With the upgrades Lakeland Linder International Airport will make to accommodate Amazon’s planned jet cargo center, the instrument landing system will be among the best 30 to 35 in the country, Gene Conrad, airport director, said.

Conrad made that claim while explaining some of the details in a $4.69 million state Department of Economic Opportunity grant that the City Commission accepted on Monday.

The antennas that guide aircraft down and help them center on the runway will be upgraded to category 2, then the lighting will be upgraded to category 3 level, he said.

With the category 2 and 3 equipment “essentially an aircraft can get to the ground with almost zero visibility,” Conrad said.

The upgrades will allow aircraft to land when the cloud ceiling is 100 feet (current capacity is 200 feet) and when visibility is down to 1,200 feet, a vast improvement over the current limit of 2,640 feet.

Money from the grant will also go toward strengthening and rehabilitating the airport’s longest runway, Runway 9-27, and making other site improvements, Conrad said.

City Manager Tony Delgado said that the city received word in January it had been awarded the DEO Florida Job Growth grant, but the terms were somewhat different because the application had been made made before Amazon had committed to locating here.

The city had originally applied for the grant, which is designed to promote economic opportunity by improving public infrastructure and workforce training, to help pay for a more generic cargo center or a jet maintenance, repair and overhaul hangar, Delgado said. Either of those projects would be expected to attract a tenant that would bring in hundreds of jobs.

But when it became clear that online retailer Amazon would make the commitment to open a jet cargo center at Lakeland’s city-owned airport, the city asked to change some of the terms of the grant. The state agreed and on Monday the commission accepted the revised grant agreement.

Airport officials had been secretly negotiating with Amazon since December 2017. Then during a City Commission agenda-study session on May 17, city officials revealed that the city and Amazon had worked out a lease agreement. Three days later, commissioners signed off on the lease agreement.

Delgado said that if Amazon does not create at least 750 jobs and invest at least $50 million within 10 years, some or all of the $4.69 million job growth grant will have to be returned.

“We are confident that will not happen,” Delgado said. “We estimate there will be 1,000 jobs and $100 million plus invested by Amazon.”

That $100 million investment includes erecting and equipping three buildings totaling 283,000 square feet.

Amazon expects to start construction work in July and have the cargo center operational in July 2020.

The 50-year lease includes an initial 20-year agreement with options to extend at 10-year intervals for the remaining three decades. Amazon’s lease payment will amount to $967,812 a year on 47 acres on the northwest side of the airport, with the amount subject to resetting in five years.

And Amazon has an option to lease the adjoining 62 acres to the west and payments for that parcel will be negotiated when the option is taken.

In addition to the lease payments, the airport will receive landing fees from Amazon, 85-cents per 1,000 pounds of cargo, and fuel pump fees of 3 cents on each gallon.

Work is already under way on the runway improvements, Conrad said.

In addition to the DOE grant, the commission on Monday accepted two airport-improvement grants from the Florida Department of Transportation.

FDOT will cover 5 percent of the estimated $3.7 million cost to rehabilitate the three taxiways that serve the north side of the airport, Taxiways A, B, C. The taxiways were last rehabilitated in the early 2000s, according to a staff report.

The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to issue a grant covering 90 percent of the taxiway improvement costs, however, has asked the airport to first provide design plans.

A separate FDOT grant will cover 5 percent of the estimated $1.9 million needed to improve Taxiway E, which serves the Lakeland Airside Center and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s “hurricane hunter” aircraft, among other tenants. The FAA is expected to fund 90 percent of the project. The project, which is in its earliest, pre-design phase, will rehabilitate the taxiway to the sub-base, partially realign it and widen it.

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