Miami company eyes Clewiston’s airport

Airglades Airport has been a skydiving mecca for years, but local officials have grander ideas in mind for the sleepy airport. All that seems to be needed is assistance from the state.

Airglades Airport has been a skydiving mecca for years, but local officials have grander ideas in mind for the sleepy airport. All that seems to be needed is assistance from the state.

The 2016 Florida Legislative Session could begin as early as January next year, putting Hendry officials on a shortened schedule to prepare the county’s annual priorities list.

At the forefront of that list is Airglades Airport. The county reportedly has commitment letters from a Miami-based aircraft conversion and modification company which has expressed interest in expanding its growing business to the small airport.

Commercial Jet is headquartered at Miami International Airport and converts commercial aircrafts into aircargo crafts. Outgrowing the space at Miami International, the company recently expanded to a regional airport in Dothan, Alabama.

According to an article published in the Dothan Eagle in 2013, Commercial Jet’s expansion was estimated to create 500 jobs directly and 1,500 jobs indirectly to support it.

Hendry County officials hope for similar numbers, and anticipate Commercial Jet’s expansion to Airglades would produce “200 full-time, high-paying, specialized jobs within Hendry County,” according to the proposal sent to the state legislature this year.

The proposal lays out the cost detail, funding sources and justification for each aspect of the project, and is broken into three components: aircraft conversion and modification center development, education center, and MD-11 Parking.

The center development includes constructing aircraft turn-around pads, taxiway improvements, aircraft parking apron, hanger building, utility improvements and vehicle access and parking for Commercial Jet’s operations.

The project would also call upon the services of an area college to help train local workers to complete the task of transforming commercial aircrafts into cargo aircrafts.

In Alabama, Commercial Jet works with two area colleges to train workers, opting to dip into the local labor pool instead of relocating already qualified workers.

Hendry County named Florida SouthWestern State College as a participating college. The education center portion of the project would create a facility where workers can get hands-on training. The construction of the education center includes Boeing 727 parking, asphalt pavement and a new building.

The last component of the project, MD-11 Parking, would accommodate several retired cargo aircrafts from a cargo operator at Miami International Airport. The planes would be parked at an existing apron at Airglades and would be dismantled over time. Officials hope this component would accommodate a new tenant at Airglades, as well as establish a dedicated air cargo operator at the airport.

The total cost of all three components is estimated at about $13.4 million. During a meeting with the county’s state representatives late last year, it was suggested the county separate the project into bite-sized, more palatable pieces — the county is more likely to get $3 million in grants than $13 million, was the advice.

Officials sent its proposal asking for $3 million from the state to cover funding for the engineering and design plans, as well as permitting and construction.

Despite the bite-sized morsel, the portion of the large, potentially game-changing project was vetoed by Governor Rick Scott in June.

County Administrator Charles Chapman called the veto a “disappointment,” but said the county was looking forward to the 2016 legislative session to repackage and resubmit the proposal.

If the county cannot secure state funding, it would need to seek out private funds to get the project underway.

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