MANATEE -- Twenty-five years of debt went up in flames Monday morning as Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport officials celebrated paying off its bonds.
Sarasota-Manatee Airport Authority Board members and airport staff help throw the mortgage into a small fire pit near the terminal as airport employees stood behind them cheering the milestone that wiped away the nearly $150 million spent to build a terminal and entryway to the airport. Before accruing interest over the last 25 years, the terminal, ramp, roadway and parking cost $60 million in 1987, said Fredrick "Rick" Piccolo, SRQ chief executive officer and president of the airport authority. Construction was completed in 1990.
The airport started out in 1939 as an airfield and later was used as an U.S. Army Air Forces fighter pilot training base during World War II. In 1965, it had regular commercial jet airlines before the airport authority committed to a terminal in the 1980s. The 1,100-acre airport is mainly in Manatee County with the terminal area in Sarasota city limits.
"No decision was more difficult or more important than the one that created the modern airport facility that the community enjoys today," Piccolo said.
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In addition to the $5 million annual debt payments, the airport continued to make upgrades without adding to its long-term debt, including lengthening the main runway, new taxiways, a T-hangar expansion, noise mitigation and a business park. The terminal is undergoing an upgrade now as well.
"The terminal now approaches 25 years of age and is in the final stages of total renewal," Piccolo said. "It has added numerous security and amenity improvements, and most important of all, without adding one penny of new debt over that 25-year period."
The ticket counters and baggage claim areas are finished and the first and second floors of the concourse are being worked on. Outside, curbside improvements to help travel flow for cars dropping off and picking up passengers are on the way. Design changes have reduced the cost from $7.5 million to below $5 million, according to budget documents. Bids are expected to be received in January.
The authority is also working with FDOT and Manatee County to build a new east airport access, too.
The terminal renovations begun in June are designed to attract more international passengers with an expanded customs area. Airport officials hope they can either attract more Canadian flights or a charter flight to Germany.
One project that seems to be dragging on the federal level is approval for a new and relocated air traffic control tower. If approved, the tower would be relocated to allow commercial development, including hotels, in the airport's infield. The FFA is reviewing grant requests for the $10.2 million project, and Piccolo said he is optimistic bids could be solicited for the project next spring.
The airport has met with all the major airlines over the past year, including Southwest, to hear plans and talks, and is keying in on finding ways to resume service to Thurgood Marshall Baltimore Washington International for spring training and find an airline to fly to Dallas to serve as a hub to add more West Coast flights beyond those routed through Atlanta.
Airport officials expect to find out within the coming month if any new or expanded service will be added to SRQ as airlines finish winter schedules, Piccolo said.
More passengers are coming through SRQ so far this year compared with 2013, too. Through the end of June, the airport saw about 7,000 more passengers pass through, which accounts for an 1-percent increase compared with the same period last year.
Jack Rynerson, board member of the airport authority, said this will be a day to remember in part due to the work of so many people over a quarter of a century.
"Retirement of a 25-year obligation of the airport authority is a milestone that deserves recognition because it is a culmination of the efforts of so many people," Rynerson said, thanking authority employees, past and present board members, airlines and service providers.
Now that the airport has freed up about $5 million annually, the airport authority is expected to have a public hearing on its proposed $16.9 million budget at its Sept. 22 meeting. That is only a 4.7-percent increase from the fiscal 2014 budget of $16.1 million.
The budget also forecasts an overall airport revenue increase of $205,472 this fiscal year.
Airport officials hope to devote some of the $5 million in savings to secure more routes and airline service.
The airport is also expected to upgrade its free WiFi this year, too. Right now, fewer than 150 people can use the system at same time -- less than a full flight of passengers. The authority is budgeted to spend $90,000 on upgraded bandwidth and coverage with Bright House Networks for better WiFi.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.