Many people think of airports as places where planes take off and land. But there’s much more that happens at Polk County’s four local airports, all of which support aviation and the Polk County economy.

For instance, Gulf Coast Avionics sells, installs and repairs aircraft electronics.

“We bring in customers from all over the world to our facility to provide our services,” said GCA President and CEO Rick Garcia. He started the company in Tampa in 1984, then relocated to Lakeland in 1999.

Garcia said the future of aviation and aerospace industries are big here in Polk County and he’s never been happier.

The name change alone — from Lakeland Linder Regional to Lakeland Linder International Airport (LAL) – was a big step and foreshadows a lot of progress in the county.

“With it now being an international airport and Amazon coming, the best is yet to come,” he said, referencing Amazon’s plan to make a $100 million capital investment and employ about 100 people at the airport, starting in June 2020.

“Things happen. Cargo and everything are wanting to come here.”

Garcia pointed to two other things that are helping businesses at the airport, the first is the economy.

“Businesses are expanding. Companies are looking to relocate here,” he said.

The second is LAL Director Gene Conrad, who Garcia calls the key to everything that’s happened at the airport in the last five to six years.

“Gene is very driven and focused. He’s got connections to get grants, and he’s gotten a tremendous amount — millions of dollars’ worth,” Garcia said. “That never happened before him. Things have changed 180 degrees since Gene got here. He is our hero.”

The Central Florida Development Council recently added aviation and aerospace as a target industry and introduced Conrad to its board of directors, naming him chair of a committee overseeing collaboration among the four regional airports in Polk County.

Together, the airports in Lakeland, Bartow, Winter Haven and Lake Wales have an economic impact of more than $878 million, according to the March 2019 Florida Statewide Aviation Economic Impact Study conducted by the Florida Department of Transportation.

WINTER HAVEN REGIONAL AIRPORT

At Winter Haven’s Gilbert Airport (GIF), a variety of services are offered, including fueling, rental car accommodations, maintenance facilities, flight training and more. Many, including restaurant services, are also offered at the other local airports.

“Growth in the county fuels growth at the airport,” said Ashley Udick, GIF’s newly hired General Manager.

“Ranked as the 14th fastest-growing metropolitan area in the U.S., Winter Haven had the highest numerical population change in the county between 2010–2018. Winter Haven is experiencing exponential growth with construction permits exceeding $300 million in 2018,” Udick said.

“The economic development and growth generate air travel and demand for air travel options. The airports in Polk County are committed to doing their best to meet those demands.”

The City of Winter Haven recently selected a contractor for a Utility Expansion Project, which will bring water, sewer, electric and fiber optic to the north and east sides of the airfield.

“Having these utilities available will allow us to move forward with our airport master plan and develop the land for both aeronautical and non-aeronautical use,” Udick said.

The potential return on that investment includes a hotel, aviation school, 22 corporate hangars, 50 T-hangars and about 120 new jobs (including 15-20 in aviation-related fields).

The annual economic impact could be:

  • About $162,000 in property taxes, leases and rental income.
  • $122,400 in utility revenue.
  • Almost $78,000 in fuel sales.

BARTOW EXECUTIVE AIRPORT

Bartow Executive Airport (BOW) owns and operates its full-service fixed base operations, providing aircraft handling, jet fuel, flight instruction and aircraft rental.

“Our terminal has retail pilot supplies, pilot/crew lounge, flight briefing room, conference rooms, a restaurant and a small museum room,” said Executive Director John Helms.

It also has 30 aviation and non-aviation businesses that employ more than 800 people at the airport, including 30 airport authority staff. They all contribute to the airport’s economic impact of almost $222.5 million.

“Industrial park income is vital to assisting in the maintenance of the expansive airport infrastructure,” Helms said.

Airport-based companies also require services — from basic supplies to construction, electrical, plumbing and the like — from local companies.

“Airport support is a growth industry. As the population of Florida grows, aviation does as well,” Helms said. “In the last four years, the aviation industry in Florida has gone from an impressive $144 billion per year to $175 billion.”

They also provide critical support for disaster relief and emergency staging during hurricanes and other disasters.

Helms said he sees aviation and aerospace playing a major role in Polk County’s economy for years to come. “Polk County’s central location, impressive airports and the emphasis of local colleges on aerospace education are attractive to corporate operators and aviation maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) centers alike.”

LAKE WALES MUNICIPAL AIRPORT

Recognized for aerial sports, including skydiving, parachuting and recreational glider activity, Lake Wales Municipal Airport (X07) also supports mosquito and agricultural spraying and has been used more often for military training.

For additional information about this topic or how to become a partner with the Central Florida Development Council, please contact Lindsay Zimmerman at lindsay@cfdc.org.