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Vero Beach airport master plan peers 20 years ahead

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of February 27, 2014)

The Vero Beach airport seems ready to takeoff, with ample land and space to lease for both aviation and general commercial clients, the capacity to ramp up flight training as the demand for pilots increases, and interest in commercial jet service on the horizon.

The airport’s challenges are finding ways to market what the airport has to offer, and diversifying the business enterprises at the airport sufficiently to enable it to ride out any economic downturn and remain self-sufficient so as not to be a drain on city taxpayers. All this is being explored by way of an 18-month airport master plan process that’s underway.

The mission statement of the master plan envisions “a vibrant, forward-looking airport serving the aeronautical needs of our community, while contributing to the growth of the local economy and honoring the historic and natural heritage of the Vero Beach area.”

The plan addresses three components – the airport’s relationship to the community, its economic impact and tenants, and finally the airport staff’s management of energy resources and the natural environment.

“We are still in the early stages of the planning effort, with several public meetings to come,” Airport Director Eric Menger said. “So far, we are making good progress on data collection and generating a forecast for airport operations over the next 20 years.”

The Vero Beach Airport Commission was set to get an update on the planning process on Thursday. The volunteer airport commission members – most of whom are pilots or in some way represent the aviation industry – advise on overall airport activities, but the master plan is being steered by a group representing a larger swath of the community.

The city has already held three public meetings, a “visioning workshop” in December, a brainstorming session in January and an initial meeting of the master plan panel on Feb. 13.

The city also has held an organizational meeting for the Vero Beach Airport Master Plan Advisory Panel made up of stakeholders and interested citizens.

Representatives on the panel include Nancy Ritter of Flight Safety, Craig Callan of Historic Dodgertown, Chris Russell of Oculina Bank, Toby Hill of The Hill Group, Gerd Pfeifle of the Experimental Aircraft Association and Vero Beach Airport Commission Chair Barbara Drndak. Real estate broker J. Burklew chairs the panel, with landscape architect David Risinger as vice chair.

The most important thing the community panel brings to the table, according to Menger, is a variety of perspectives and innovative ideas. He said there will be more public meetings as the plan progresses.

“We are receiving excellent feedback from all segments of the local community via an electronic survey that has already been completed and the public meetings that will continue until the master plan is published,” Menger said.  He noted that at the various public meetings, “the city staff and its consultant gather a wide spectrum of information that the city will use to shape the community’s vision for its airport.”

Pete Ricondo, Senior Vice President of Ricondo & Associates, estimated the master plan would cost $605,000. The FAA funds 90 percent, as that agency requires an airport plan to be done ideally every five years. The Florida Department of Transportation funds 5 percent and the remaining $30,000 comes out of the Vero airport operating budget.

The plan is nearly a decade overdue, as the last one was completed in 2000. Menger told the airport commission last year, however, that no non-compliance penalty is handed down from the FAA for not updating the master plan.

Panel members were brought up to speed on the airport’s 80-year history and were given a glimpse into what the future could hold for the facility, which handles nearly 200,000 flights per year.

Vero is a much busier airport than a sampling of other regional airports.  Sebastian Municipal Airport handles about 40,000 flights per year, while Melbourne almost approaches Vero’s volume at about 170,000 flights, but it has commercial service. In-between are Naples and Lakeland in the 85,000-90,000 range and St. Lucie County airport at about 140,000 flights per year.

The ripple effect of activities on airport property bring $355 million per year to the local economy, according to an FDOT study. Approximately 4,000 jobs are generated through airport activities, which include more than 100 different businesses – Piper Aircraft, Sun Aviation, C.J. Cannon’s restaurant, Flight Safety International, Paris Air, Legacy Flight Training, Complete Marine Services, Summit Construction and other businesses at the airport.

The city itself operates several ventures at the airport, including some water-sewer operations, and Vero has dozens of shallow drinking-water wells located on airport property.

Though the airport land cannot be sold, airport staffers are tasked with negotiating long-term leases with businesses looking for a spot to build. In the past few months, the city approved one such lease for Oculina Bank to construct a branch at the airport.

Despite the planners’ best efforts, master plan documents issue a caveat about potential volatility, “Certainty in aviation forecasts is challenging in the best of times,” it states. “Long-range forecasting is especially difficult given the multitude of factors that can impact the industry.”

As of 2013, there were 212 aircraft based at VRB, the call sign or airport code for the Vero Beach Municipal Airport.

The study by consultants Ricondo & Associates projects that by 2033 there will be 313. The number of helicopters is forecast to remain steady at 4, the number of jets to increase from 5 to 9, the number of single-engine planes to increase from 154 to 227 and the number of multi-engine planes to rise from 49 to 73.

Though pilot training accounts for a large portion of the takeoffs and landings at the Vero airport, during the winter and spring the facility does a brisk business with private planes and charter flights shuttling tourists and seasonal residents to and from Vero’s beaches and sunny climes.

The Vero Beach Air Show has also served to put the airport on the map with aviation enthusiasts who flock to see daredevil stunts, a variety of traditional and experimental aircraft and an all-around entertaining family festival atmosphere.

Since the economy began rebounding after the recession of 2008-2009, there’s been much talk about the emergence of some type of limited commercial or regular charter air service from Vero to popular cities in the Northeast and Midwest. The Indian River County Chamber of Commerce did a survey of local residents about this, but to date no such passenger service has materialized.

Menger said anyone wishing to provide input on the master plan is welcome to contact the Airport Director’s Office during working hours to talk with airport staff at 772-978-4930, ext. 103, or may send an email to