Whiting Aviation Park MRO vision
A longtime dream is finally on track with a decision by Triumph Gulf Coast to grant
$8.5 million to develop an aviation park in Santa Rosa County’s Milton...


David Tortorano
August 2018

In an age when so many locations along the Gulf Coast hope to increase their
aerospace footprint, having a nearly 300-acre site with access to a runway is a major
plus. And if that includes a bold vision of what it can be, so much the better.

The vision for Santa Rosa County’s Whiting Aviation Park in Milton is to create an
aviation maintenance, repair and overhaul depot that could handle major and minor
work for smaller military and civilian aircraft. To add to its appeal, the plan is to
establish an education and training center as well.

The idea for the aviation park has been around since 2002, but it remained a tree-
filled plot and a vision only. Then on July 18, Triumph Gulf Coast, a non-profit
established to distribute recovery funds that resulted from the 2010 BP oil spill, gave
preliminary approval for a grant of $8.5 million for Whiting Aviation Park. It also
approved funds for an MRO campus at Pensacola International Airport (story page 1).

The funding will be used to improve 40 acres of industrial park land outside the fence
but adjacent to Naval Air Station Whiting Field. The improvements are intended to
support helicopter maintenance, repair and overhaul operations in support of the
Whiting Field military training missions.

Shannon Ogletree, director of Santa Rosa Economic Development, said he was
“ecstatic” when he learned the project would be funded.

“The Triumph Board has provided us with a game-changing opportunity by allowing
us to put in infrastructure for Whiting Aviation Park. We’ve had numerous companies
inquiring over the years, inquiring as of recently.”

In fact, his scheduled call to a reporter was delayed because he was on the phone
with a company interested in the park. He said he would meet with the company “in a
couple of weeks.” He would only identify it as a known defense contractor.

The Triumph Board approval wasn’t a given. During an interview with the same
reporter in early July, Ogletree had some concerns about the request for funding
because of a Catch 22 situation. In that interview, he noted that to get the funding
from Triumph Gulf Coast, the county needed to have a company willing to commit to
setting up shop at the site. But to get a company willing to commit, he needed a park
and infrastructure in place.

But apparently, Triumph Gulf Coast saw the need to take the first step by investing in
the infrastructure with the hope that it would lead to new aviation businesses opting
to set up shop in the new park.

Triumph Chairman Don Gaetz in a release about the funding approval for the
Pensacola and Milton projects “will directly create over 3,100 high-paying jobs.” He
said the investment will grow Northwest Florida as a leader in aerospace by
expanding the region’s aviation infrastructure.

“They took a leap in faith.” Ogletree said about the Triumph Board. “We have three
interested parties but they haven’t made a final commitment yet. But the Triumph
Board realizes that getting the park operating helps protect the base.”

The next step for both projects is agreement on a term sheet that will stipulate the
obligations of all funding partners and include performance requirements and a “claw
back” that would allow Triumph to reclaim its funds if jobs aren’t created and
sustained, as committed by the private and public sponsors of the proposals.
Triumph’s funds will be paid over a period of years with each payment dependent
upon jobs created and sustained.

It could take two or three months to agree on the term sheet, said Ogletree. He said
that physical work at the site could begin sometime in 2019.

County in between
Santa Rosa County has for years been identified as an appealing bedroom
community, and is one of the fastest growing counties in a fast-growing state. It has
good schools, a low crime rate, two state parks and a wealth of water activities. It sits
between Escambia and Okaloosa counties, where many of its residents work.

The county has a diverse employment base, with no industry accounting for more
than 20 percent of the makeup, according to Ogletree. One of his tasks is to grow
the county’s employment options, so those who wish to work in the county can do so.

Ogletree particularly covets growing the county’s aerospace footprint, in part
because the wages are higher than other industries, in part because the region has
a growing aerospace cluster with multiple options for workers. The county hosts one
of the nation’s key bases for training military pilots, and its neighbors also have
significant aerospace assets.

What is particularly important to Ogletree is that Santa Rosa and its neighbors have
a high concentration of individuals coming out of the military who are “ready and
willing to go to work here.” While the skills they take from the military vary, one that
stands out is aviation, so it makes sense to target aviation because it’s more of a
match for their job skills sets.

The cluster factor
The problem for any area is ensuring it has multiple businesses in a specific field – a
cluster – so workers who are unhappy with one employer have other employers in
the same field to which he or she can turn.

“If you’re in a field of work, you have to have options beyond that company where
you work,” Ogletree said. “With aviation, we have that cluster and people can kind of
move around in this area,” since there are aerospace employers in the three-county
region of Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa. Indeed, looking further out the
region between South Louisiana and Northwest Florida is packed with aerospace
activities, ranging from space to aircraft manufacturing and more.

Santa Rosa County’s best-known aviation activity is Naval Air Station Whiting Field,
one of the Navy’s two primary flight training bases. Established in 1943, the 12,000-
acre complex provides training for Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Air Force and
allied nations. It’s the busiest air station in the world, accounting for nearly 1.5 million
annual flight operations including primary flight training of over 1,200 students.

While military bases are traditionally a lure for businesses, the type of mission at a
base plays a key role in its ability to attract supporting companies. For Okaloosa
County, Eglin Air Force Base is involved in research and development, test and
evaluation – and is a military contracting activity. That’s appealing to aerospace and
defense companies, and has been important in that county’s role as an aerospace
center.

Whiting Field’s mission is training, and the aviation-related jobs are most strongly
associated with maintenance of aircraft. Still, being between Okaloosa and Escambia
counties is “a good position” because companies don’t look at county lines, but
rather the advantages a particular site might provide. For Ogletree, he sees a
runway as a strong advantage for attracting companies that are looking at the region.

The runway lure
A runway can be an important lure for some, but not all, aviation companies. A
runway is what led to the development of Bob Sikes Airport, near Crestview, a
general aviation facility that performs a variety of modification work on military aircraft.

Access to a runway was one of the factors that prompted GKN Aerospace to set up
shop at Panama City’s Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport. It’s also what
led Mobile, Ala.-based VT MAE, now called ST Engineering Aerospace, to create a
new MRO at Pensacola International Airport.

Access to a runway is also what led Northrop Grumman to establish an unmanned
systems center in Moss Point, Miss., adjacent to Trent Lott International Airport. The
company does final assembly of the Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, fuselage work
in the Global Hawk and subassembly work on the F-35.

Santa Rosa County is making the push to develop Whiting Aviation Park through
leveraging the access to a runway. Companies that opt to set up shop at the air park
would have access to Whiting Naval Air Station’s South Field runway.

The park would provide another option for companies doing work at NAS Whiting
Field, Eglin Air Force Base, or Naval Air Station Pensacola. In addition to companies
that focus on the military, it could also appeal to aviation companies that do not work
with the military, he said.

The 300-acre park is on the back side of NAS Whiting Field, to the east. It is
industrial zoned and tenants would have access to the 6,000-foot runway, which also
has tower capabilities thanks to the military training mission. It has no structures yet,
but that is bound to change thanks to the funding from Triumph Gulf Coast. The
money will allow it to put in the infrastructure – electric, water, sewer, storm water
retention and more, said Ogletree.

The funding would not include anything for buildings, but that’s not an issue. The
plan is to have companies build their own structures, though there is also the option
of Santa Rosa putting in a building and leasing it to a tenant. Ogletree said that if the
county puts in a building, like a hangar, it would cost between $3 million and $4
million.

A hangar would not be the size of the recently-built hangar for VT MAE at Pensacola
International Airport, but rather a hangar for smaller aircraft, like the Navy’s T-6 fixed
wing aircraft or helicopters.

The vision is to have the aviation park appeal to defense-related aviation operations
as well as private companies that are not necessarily involved in military activities. A
hangar would go a long way towards making that happen.

For potential tenants, moving in represents significant cost savings, according to
Ogletree.

“Imagine how much it would cost to put 300 acres around a tower and a runway,”
Ogletree said. “How much would it cost to build a runway, how much would it cost to
build a tower? To recreate that it would cost a lot of money.”

In addition, Ogletree sees the park as a good location for an aerospace and aviation
education and training facility. He pointed out that operations like George Stone and
Pensacola State College are developing new training options, and establishing an
operation at Whiting Aviation Park would be an option for them.

Protecting the base
Ogletree said “it was the wisdom of (Santa Rosa County) Commissioner (W.D.) Don
Salter” that was the driving force behind the aviation park.

“This was through his leadership that all this has been made possible. It was his
brainchild to develop that property into an air industrial park,” he said.

Salter, a veteran who is the most senior member of the Board of County
Commissioners, said the idea for the park fits in well with the county’s ongoing effort
to protect the base from encroachment.

Salter has been involved in issues surrounding base closings since 1991, and he
said one thing he learned is that “you better protect your fence line.”

By that, he means ensuring that there are no activities encroaching on the base that
would jeopardize the military mission.

“In 2002, we started to develop a joint land use study where we looked at all of the
properties within a one mile radius of the base and the outlying fields throughout
Santa Rosa County and that’s when we developed the buffering program, which
included approximately 25,000 acres that we needed to buffer. And currently we’re
sitting here now with about 7,000 acres that we have buffered to prevent
incompatible developments.”

The county is continuing to look at more purchases around the base and outlying
fields.

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16-year passion pays off for Salter

Don Salter was excited when Triumph Gulf Coast gave a preliminary nod to the
Whiting Aviation Field project. Small wonder. He spent 16 years pushing the project.

“It just goes to show what passion is all about,” said Salter, a Santa Rosa County
commissioner. “If you believe in something and you’ve got the vision and the passion
and build a process to get there, most of the time eventually it will happen.”

If anyone knows how this all came about, it’s Salter.

“Back in 2002, after the county had acquired 267 acres along the eastern fence line
of Whiting Field, the commodore, who’s over all the training at Whiting Field, called
me and asked me to meet with him.

“So I met with him and it was his suggestion that we try to get an aviation park along
that fence line where they could just run the aircraft through the fence and make the
repairs instead of sending them off to Alabama and Mississippi and in some cases St.
Louis, and that would reduce the number of days their aircraft would be down
because it would have to leave the base.

“And that would make the base more efficient because it could get its aircraft back in
the air probably two or three days sooner versus having to send them off.”

The county initially purchased 33 acres, then used Florida Defense grant money to
buy the remainder of the 267 acres, part of a broader effort to prevent encroachment
from projects incompatible with the base mission.

The key to the park was to get an agreement between the county and the Navy
allowing companies who set up shop at the park to have limited access to the Navy’s
6,000-foot runway at the South Field. The Air Force had such arrangements, but not
the Navy.

That began a long process with trips to the Pentagon and elsewhere to secure the
agreement.

“It took six years … before I finally got the limited access use agreement approved in
2009,” Salter said.

It was grueling, but he persisted.

“I never gave up hope. I’ve always been one who believes in a vision and passion
and I just felt like this was the right thing to do at the Whiting Aviation Park, and I had
a lot of support from my fellow commissioners and the community as well, so we just
had to stay focused and keep working. We actually had the legislature two different
times approve $5 million to go toward development of the project, just to have it
vetoed by two different governors.”

Expect them to try again.

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