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What will Santa bring? For Vero Beach Regional Airport, a U.S. Customs facility

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS (Week of December 15, 2022)

Corporate Air is close to breaking ground on a $20 million expansion at Vero Beach Regional Airport that will include a U.S. Customs facility – complete with interrogation rooms and holding cells – and six 20,000-square-foot hangers for private jets.

Corporate Air is a fixed base operator, or FBO, that provides fuel, aircraft maintenance, hangar space, charter flights and related services for customers who fly in and out of town on private or corporate planes.

Founded as a one-man operation in 1986 by company owner and president Rodger Pridgeon, the company has been on a growth spurt over the past 10 years as Vero Beach has gained luster as a second- or third-home destination for the kind of people who fly private. The pandemic supercharged that growth.

“With airline restrictions and cancellations, we saw an increase in people flying private, people who had been flying first class who still needed to travel and could afford to buy or charter a plane,” Pridgeon told Vero Beach 32963.

Despite an unsettled economy and predictions of a recession next year, Pridgeon is pushing ahead with the expansion project as fast as he can get drawings and permits, confident his business will continue its upward trajectory.

“Vero Beach is a unique community,” he said. “Some people are worried about the national economy, but our customers here are not so much affected by that. They are pretty insulated from economic ups and downs. They are always going to come to their beautiful homes in Florida, and they aren’t going to drive down in a truck or take a train.”

“Almost all of the company’s customers are 32963 residents from John’s Island, Orchid, Riomar and other upscale island communities,” said former county commissioner Tim Zorc, who now operates consulting firm Terra Southern, LLC, and is working with Pridgeon to facilitate the new construction.

Pridgeon said “99.9 percent” of the planes he handles are jets, including turboprops, and Corporate Air is running out of room to fuel, service and store them.

“We handle as many as 50 take-offs or landings on our busiest days,” said Pridgeon, who has 20 employees. “Our hangar space is maxed out.”

Corporate Air is not alone. There is a nationwide shortage of hanger space that is especially acute in Florida, according to business and trade publications.

“For all the luxuries and conveniences private jets offer to travelers in the air, these aircraft spend most of their lives on the ground ... [and] there’s currently a shortage of places to park them,” according to Barrons. “Hangar deficits are growing increasingly acute [and] ... orders for private jets continue to increase.”

“Hangar space is a scarce commodity, from basic overnight hangars at popular FBOs to long-term rentals,” David Gitman, president of Monarch Air Group, a jet provider in Fort Lauderdale, told Barrons. “The pandemic created a wave of demand that the industry is struggling to accommodate.”

Pridgeon agreed. “There is tremendous demand for hangar space,” he said, but he is not relying solely pent-up demand to fill his new hangars.

Instead, he is building a 3,000-square-foot U.S. Customs facility near the private terminal he built a couple of years ago so that international flights will be able to land and clear customs at his facility.

Currently, island residents and visitors flying in from the Bahamas or other foreign countries have to land in Fort Pierce, clear customs and then take off and land a second time in Vero, an expensive and time-consuming process.

“We think it will increase our business about 30 percent,” Pridgeon said. “We have a financial feasibility study based on other airports in Stuart and Boca that put in the same kind of facility and saw that kind of increase after opening to international flights.”

Corporate air is footing the entire bill for construction and operation of the Vero customs house, including the salaries of two U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents who will man the facility.

“The federal government was never going to get around to building a customs facility here, so Rodger decided to go ahead and fund it,” said Zorc. “I was hired to build the team for the project, including a civil engineer, architect, general contractor and others.

“It is a long, complicated process to get all of the needed approvals from U.S. Customs, but they have signed off on 99 percent of our plans and we expect to break ground in late in the first quarter of 2023. Bill Bryant will be the general contractor.”

Zorc will be both facilitator and contractor for the six-building, 120,000-square-foot hangar project, which is slated to break ground in February.

The airport recently completed a 7-acre ramp – an airplane parking/fueling/maintenance area – that set the stage for Corporate Air’s expansion.

The cavernous metal buildings will be spaced out along the edge of the new, 12-inch-thick, 300,000-square-foot concrete slab on land Pidgeon recently leased from the airport, and will nearly triple the company’s hangar space.

“When I started, the airport leases were for 30 years, but prices for developing hangars and other FBO-related structures have sky-rocketed, so we negotiated a 40-year lease to improve our ROI,” Pridgeon said.

The first two hangars are budgeted at $1.85 million each, quite a bit more than the $120,000 Pridgeon spent building his first hangar at the airport back in 1986.

On the plus side, “hangar rental rates have doubled since 2020,” Pridgeon said with a smile.

In another key business move, Pridgeon started his own fuel supply company in 2021, naming the venture Jet Juice.

“We are a long way from the port in Fort Lauderdale where the fuel comes in and sometimes we got bumped or delayed because our airport isn’t that big and we are at the end of line for deliveries,” Pridgeon said. “We almost ran out of fuel a couple of times, which scared me, so I decided to start Jet Juice.”

Working with an associate familiar with the fuel supply business, Pridgeon secured the licenses, permits and approvals needed to haul tankers full of aviation fuel from Lauderdale to Vero.

“I bought an 80,000-gallon tank tractor-trailer vehicle about a year ago and just purchased a second one,” Pridgeon said. “We don’t buy the fuel branded, which saves us money, and we are able to store extra fuel in our storage tank here at the airport when fuel is abundant, which is worth its weight in gold.”

Pridgeon also hauls fuel of other local aviation businesses.

“It isn’t a huge money-maker in itself, but it gives us a competitive advantage and ensures we have the fuel we need,” he said. “The reliability part is most important benefit.”

Pridgeon’s bold business practices have not gone unnoticed. The Small Business Administration – which is backing the expansion project, along with Chase Bank – named him 2022 Small Businessperson of the Year in its South Florida District.

“Since they gave me the award, they pretty much had to give me a loan,” Pridgeon joked.

“With tenacity and resilience [many small businesses] ... have not only survived the pandemic but have thrived,” said SBA South Florida District Director J. Malcolm Richards. “Corporate Air, under the leadership of Rodger Pridgeon, is a perfect example of such resiliency.”

Judging criteria for the award included “sustained growth and expansion in services or square footage occupied, as well as growth in number of employees; increase in sales, net worth and net profit; response to adversity; and contributions to community-oriented projects.”

Pridgeon is community minded in more ways than one.

He regularly donates hangar space to local nonprofits in need of a large venue to host fundraising events, including the Children’s Home Society, Boys & Girls Clubs, American Red Cross and the Jake Owen Foundation, which just held its third big fundraiser in a Corporate Air hangar last week.

But he also conceives of his profit-making business in community terms, growing and thriving as Vero grows while helping accelerate that growth.

“Corporate Air’s expansion will definitely be good for the airport,” said airport director Todd Scher, who sees the airport participating in the same community economy symbiosis as Pridgeon’s company.

“We are only getting busier as the area grows and their expansion will help us handle all the new aircraft coming here, by providing fuel and hangar space and all the other services. We welcome any expansion that creates jobs at the airport and in Vero Beach.”

“The main thing in business is never give up,” says Pridgeon. “You have to find a way to get it done and continue to move ahead.”

Zorc said the entire project, including the customs house, six hangars and all related work, will be done by the fall of 2025.

“At that point, Rodger will probably be ready to get going on something else,” Zorc added.