Gene Conrad

The man who put the “international” in Lakeland Linder International Airport is moving from the airport’s north side to its south side in April when he assumes his new position as president/CEO of the Aerospace Center for Excellence at Sun ‘n Fun’s Expo Campus and Florida Air Museum.

Sun ‘n Fun and the city of Lakeland announced today that Gene Conrad, who has been director of city-owned Lakeland Linder International Airport since January 2010, will leave his position effective March 7 to succeed John “Lites” Leenhouts as president/CEO of the nonprofit Aerospace Center for Excellence (ACE).

Conrad will “officially join the team on March 7 to start the transition to be the next CEO following the completion of the 2022 SUN ‘n FUN Aerospace Expo” and formally assume the new position on April 11, the day after the annual flight show concludes, Sun ‘n Fun said in its news release.

Gene Conrad answers questions about Lakeland airport arrival and departure corridors last May during a public meeting about Amazon’s air cargo facility.

“Under his leadership we have accomplished some incredible things,” Lakeland City Manager Shawn Sherrouse said in a prepared statement. “People may not realize but the airport is its own economic engine providing thousands of jobs and we are at 100% occupancy for all city facilities at the airport. That was not the case a few years ago and a lot of the growth at the airport is a direct correlation to Gene’s leadership.”

More than 60 different businesses lease more than 100 city-owned spaces at the airport, including aircraft avionics shops, flight schools, aircraft painting and refurbishing, airframe and powerplant maintenance for aircraft ranging from single-engine Cessnas to 737s, according to the city.

During Conrad’s tenure at the airport, he:

  • Coordinated a $200 million capital improvement program
  • Negotiated a 50-year lease with Amazon Air Cargo that includes a million-square-foot fulfillment center on County Line Road in 2015 and air cargo facility in July 2020 and in 2017
  • Induced the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s “Hurricane Hunters” to move its Aircraft Operations Center into a 156,043-square-foot space at Linder as the new headquarters for its fleet of nine aircraft. 

Also in 2017, U.S. Customs & Border Protection built an installation at the Linder airport terminal to handle international passengers and cargo coming into the United States, officially giving the airport its “International” designation and boosting its capacity as a Central Florida air cargo hub. 

During Conrad’s tenure, more than “$450 million has been invested at the airport and our economic impact to the region has grown from $167 million in 2010 to over $1 billion today,” Sherrouse said. “We totally understand that this is a great opportunity for Gene and I wish him the best of luck in his new position.”

Conrad said in a prepared statement, “I am very grateful for the opportunities provided to me by the city of Lakeland and I wish the airport team and all the wonderful tenants at the airport nothing but great success going forward. I also appreciate our partners like the Federal Aviation Administration and the Florida Department of Transportation that invested tens of millions of dollars into Lakeland Linder International Airport over the years. This investment helped us create a hub of activity in attracting the NOAA Hurricane Hunters and the Amazon cargo facility.”

Located on the airport adjacent to the Florida Air Museum — MapQuest says it’s a 7-minute, 4.7-mile drive from the airport administrative offices on the north side to the SUN ‘n FUN Expo Campus on the south side — ACE occupies a 14-building Aerospace Youth Education Complex and is dedicated to promoting careers in aviation through year-round outreach and coordination with other educational institutions, the Florida Air Museum and the Lakeland Aero Club. 

The Aerospace Center for Excellence awards scholarships through the Naples-based James C. Ray Foundation for students to earn private pilot licenses. Students are enrolled in Polk State College Aerospace program, Southeastern University’s Aviation program and Central Florida Aerospace Academy, a 9th- through 12th-grade academy operated by the Polk County school district. More than 300 students are currently enrolled, according to ACE.

Conrad is a native of Oshkosh, Wisc., where his father was director of Wittman Regional Airport, and is a graduate of Ohio State University with a degree in aviation management. Before coming to Lakeland, he served as deputy director, marketing air service development at Branson Airport in Hollister, Mo., and as air service coordinator and marketing manager at Dayton International Airport in Dayton, Ohio.

Providing affordable training for young people who want to earn pilots licenses and/or skills in aircraft maintenance and other aviation industries has been a driving theme in his career, Conrad said. 

“I am very passionate about aviation and one of the reasons I originally accepted the position as airport director was because of the existence of Sun ‘n Fun at the airport,” he said. “This opportunity is a natural next step for me professionally.”

Conrad’s volunteer participation and promotion of the 200,000-member Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) annual AirVenture Fly-In Convention in Oshkosh, which attracts more than 500,000 people and 10,000 airplanes each year, is among reasons why the Sun ‘n Fun board chose him to lead ACE and Sun ‘n Fun in the future.

The 48th annual SUN ‘n FUN Aerospace Expo 2022, which bills itself as “Florida’s largest annual convention of any kind and the second-largest air show in the world,” is expected to draw 200,000 guests from more than 60 nations April 5-10. It is ACE’s largest fund-raising event of the year.

“Gene’s track record and success here at Lakeland Linder International Airport makes him the best choice for the future of the Aerospace Center For Excellence and the Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo,” said Chair Rick Garcia, president/CEO of Gulf Coast Avionics and ACE board chair.

Leenhouts had praise for his successor. “After working closely with Gene as the airport manager over the last 10 years, I can state without reservation that his heart and passion has been to ensure that the future of ACE and SnF was protected for future growth,” he said. “I am looking forward to seeing ACE/SnF reach new heights of success under his leadership.”

Leenhouts has been ACE president/CEO since August 2011. The former naval aviator is credited by the board with securing millions for capital improvements on the Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo Campus, creating “a world-class event venue attracting dozens of multiday events annually, built the world’s largest high school flying club, and consistently increased attendance at the annual SUN ‘n FUN Aerospace Expo.”

Leenhouts “was the perfect addition to our team,” ACE Chief Financial Officer Tracy Neal said in November when Leenhouts announced his retirement. “He jumped right in and helped us transform from a not-for-profit living on a line of credit to a not-for-profit able to survive the COVID pandemic. He has guided the team through major improvements across the entire campus, including our latest addition of the Ramus SkyLAB Innovation Center. He has forged bonds with volunteers, donors and students that will be remembered for years to come.”

According to its IRS filing, ACE reported n 2019 — the last year records are available — that it collected $1.61 million in revenues in 2018, including $398,000 in contributions and $1.19 million in income from program services. That was down from $1.9 million in revenues both in 2017 and 2016 but has significantly increased with Amazon coming fully aboard last summer.

ACE reported in 2019 that Leenhouts was paid $168,005 with $12,099 in other salary enhancements.

Conrad was earning more than $173,000 as Lakeland’s airport director. The job search and hiring was coordinated by SHR Human Resources, which is headed by former Lakeland City Commissioner Don Selvage.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for Gene Conrad, though it’s difficult for the city of Lakeland to lose such a dedicated public servant,” Sherrouse said. “He has been an excellent director at the airport and under his leadership we have accomplished some incredible things. We totally understand that this is a great opportunity for Gene, and I wish him the best of luck in his new position.”

Conrad plans to hit the tarmac running.

“I am both humbled and honored to be given the opportunity to lead such an incredible organization that just within the last several years has evolved from not only a major aviation expo, but now a nationally recognized Aerospace Youth Education Complex, educating thousands of students annually,” he said. “I am anxious to join the team and share in my passion for aviation.”

Conrad is the third city department head to announce leaving their posts in less than two months. In December, Deputy City Manager and former Economic and Community Development Director Nicole Travis announced she was leaving after 11 1/2 years with the city; she now leads the city of Tampa’s Development and Economic Opportunity Department. Lakeland Electric General Manager Joel Ivy announced in December he will leave his nine-year position with the city in April to become director of Lubbock Power & Light in his native Texas.

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  1. Mr. Conrad has done an amazing job over the years but maybe we need some fresh ideas on bringing commercial airline service to Lakeland.

  2. Gene has been a huge asset to the airport and, by extension of its growth and success, to the Lakeland community. His leadership has been a major factor in Lakeland Linder International Airport realizing a great deal of its potential, and he is leaving it poised for continued expansion as a public transportation for the movement of goods and, I believe, someday soon, people (on a commercial air service scale). ACE’s gain is in the airports’ loss. I wish him all the best in his new undertaking, and I hope and trust the City will find solid, proactive and visionary new leadership to carry us through the next 10 years. Onward and upward!

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