St. Petersburg pilots, AOPA savor win in battle over Albert Whitted Airport

June 11, 2003

A waterside airport with a long history. A mayor who wanted to close part of the airport and turn it into a park and other developments. Leading up to yesterday's election, it sounded depressingly like Chicago's Meigs Field.

But this time the outcome was much different. No bulldozers will be ripping up the runway at St. Petersburg, Florida's Albert Whitted Airport. Thanks to the hard work of local airport advocates and AOPA, aircraft will be landing at SPG in perpetuity. By a three-to-one margin, St. Petersburg voters rejected a proposal to close the airport and turn half of it into parkland. And the overwhelming nature of the victory prompted Mayor Rick Baker to abandon his "compromise" proposal to close one runway and sell some land for development.

"The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is pleased that the voters of St. Petersburg have finally put to rest the threat to this vital airport," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "AOPA is absolutely committed to saving airports. Just as we fought for Meigs Field, AOPA will battle to stop any local government from destroying a vibrant, taxpayer-supported airport. And we'll do more than just issue a press release. We have, and we will, commit significant resources to the fight."

For Albert Whitted, AOPA spent more than $100,000 and put "boots on the ground" to help local airport supporters win the election battle to preserve the airport.

Bill Dunn, AOPA vice president of airports, was the association's "field general." He made frequent trips to St. Petersburg in the weeks before the election, meeting with city officials to explain the benefits and importance of keeping the airport open. He also met with the airport support groups to determine how AOPA could best help their cause, was AOPA's spokesman to the local media, and was there to talk to the voters on election day and be part of the victory celebrations.

The association hired a local political consultant to develop a sound strategy and follow it through to Election Day. AOPA commissioned scientific polling to determine the most effective messages with the voters. Based on that research, AOPA ran ads in local newspapers, placed television ads targeted to the most likely voters in St. Petersburg, and sent direct mail [see mailer 1 and mailer 2] to registered voters.

AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer Jack Tunstill was in many ways the face of the issue. He would give three or more speeches a day to civic groups, and was a major spokesman for the airport in the media. A local flight instructor, Tunstill spoke with authority on the value of the airport to the community.

Ruth Varn, who was awarded AOPA's Sharples Award in 1986 for her airport activism the last time the airport was threatened, headed the Albert Whitted Advisory Committee and the Albert Whitted Political Action Committee. The groups' many educational and advocacy efforts included advertising in the St. Petersburg Times and political signs around town telling voters how they should vote on the multiple ballot issues affecting the airport.

The Albert Whitted Preservation Society held an air show at the airport to help promote it to the community and conducted "support Albert Whitted" demonstrations. Some 1,600 volunteers were involved with the two groups.

"We lived and breathed this issue for the last 30 days," said Boyer. "Any national organization that truly wants to make a difference has to be willing to make this kind of commitment to the issue.

"AOPA's commitment and the voters' choice should send a strong message to politicians everywhere," said Boyer. "Airports are important and we will fight to keep them."

The 400,000 members of AOPA make up the world's largest civil aviation organization. AOPA is committed to ensuring the continued viability, growth, and development of aviation and airports in the United States. These airports are a vital and critical component of a national transportation system.

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