Anatomy of a victory


How local advocates and AOPA saved Albert Whitted Airport

May 11, 2003

A waterside airport with a long history. A mayor who wants to close part of the airport and turn it into a park and other developments. Sounds like Meigs Field in Chicago? But this time the outcome was much different. No bulldozers will be ripping up the runway at St. Petersburg's (Florida) Albert Whitted Airport. Thanks to the hard work of local airport advocates and AOPA, aircraft will be landing at SPG in perpetuity.

"AOPA is absolutely committed to saving airports," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "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.

"Every one put their heart and soul into saving this airport," said Jamie Bennett, St. Petersburg City Council member and airport supporter, "but AOPA pushed it over the top."

Historic Albert Whitted Airport has been an important part of St. Petersburg's transportation system for 75 years. The first scheduled airline flight took off from Albert Whitted. Today the airport, with some 145 based aircraft and numerous aviation businesses, contributes more than $21 million a year to the economy of the region. The busy reliever airport to Tampa, St. Petersburg-Clearwater and Sarasota International airports accounts for some 100,000 takeoffs and landings a year.

Because of its importance to the national system of airports, the FAA has provided significant grants through the years to improve the airport. Those grants legally obligate the city to keep the airport open until 2022 (unlike Meigs, where all the federal grants had expired).

Despite that legal obligation, a small group of local activists pushed for a ballot referendum that would have closed the airport and converted half the property into a park.

Two local support groups (the Albert Whitted Airport Advisory Committee and the Albert Whitted Airport Preservation Society), AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer Jack Tunstill, and AOPA teamed to educate the voting public on the value of their airport.

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) headed the Albert Whitted Advisory Committee and the Albert Whitted Political Action Committee. Their 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.

AOPA's involvement was at the strategic and resource level.

Bill Dunn, AOPA VP 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.

"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."

And that commitment worked. By a 3-to-1 margin, St. Petersburg residents voted to keep the airport open "in perpetuity." They voted to continue accepting federal grants that obligate the city to maintain the airport. And by an overwhelming majority of 78 percent, they rejected the plan to close the airport by 2011 and convert at least half of it to a park.

"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."

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