As the aviation and aerospace sector continues to tick skyward in Polk County, Winter Haven is improving its airport to better serve the area’s residents and increase its economic impact in Central Florida.

“It is very important for us to maintain and improve our airport infrastructure,” said Winter Haven Regional Airport Manager Alex Vacha. “This will help us continue to grow in capacity, increase our safety and provide a greater economic impact to our city and region.”

Two projects to improve the airport’s runways will benefit general aviation and corporate airport users, Vacha said.

The first project is the design and construction of the Taxiway C Extension that will extend Taxiway C so it connects with Taxiway D, running parallel to Runway 11-29.

“Connecting them will create a complete full-length parallel taxiway. The completed Taxiway C will be 25 feet wide, 1,500 feet long and will provide safer and more efficient access to Runway 11-29.”

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will cover 87 percent of the cost – $1.65 million; the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) will contribute 6 percent – $120,000; and Winter Haven will pay the remaining 7 percent – $133,000.

The second project is the design of the Taxiway B Rehabilitation project — the primary parallel taxiway to the primary runway, Runway 5-23. This includes repairing and widening the taxiway, which is 5,000 feet long and 35 feet wide, adding new LED airfield lighting and removing Taxiway A.

The FAA will cover 92 percent of the cost – $244,000 and the city and FDOT will pay about 4 percent each – $11,000

“These projects benefit both our general aviation and corporate airport users,” Vacha said, adding that new markings, lighting and direct routing will improve safety and increase efficiency. “Pilots may taxi their aircraft more directly to and from the runways using these improved taxiway surfaces.”

He said the airport’s mission is to “create a positive aviation and non-aviation business climate that is sustainable and self-sufficient while providing exceptional customer service to pilots, tenants and guests.”

A 2019 FDOT Economic Impact Study shows Gilbert Field, generally known for its flight, helicopter and seaplane training, had an $11.7 million impact at the airport and an additional $22.9 million in visitor spending impacts which relate to local businesses, including restaurants, rental car facilities, local attractions, etc.

A Community Effort

In 2014, the economic impact of Polk County’s four airports was just under $400 million annually. In 2019, that number jumped to more than $800 million.

“These economic impact numbers prove that our collective investments in airport infrastructure have provided a significant return on investment to our region,” said Gene Conrad, manager of Lakeland Linder International Airport and chair of the Central Florida Development Council’s Aviation Committee.

Continually improving infrastructure at Polk County’s airports is critically important for the long term — something the county’s four airports are doing very well.

“Whether the pavement has met its useful life and needs to be rehabilitated or changes are being made to the layout of the airport to be ready for future development, these improvements are necessary and needed,” Conrad said. “Also, if we as airport administrators are not going after these grants to improve our local airports, these funds will go to other airports in the state. and we want these critical infrastructure investments made here in Polk County.”

People involved directly in aviation and those sitting on the sidelines are paying attention to the improvements being made, Conrad said. “Those collective efforts are allowing us to grow existing on-airport businesses and bring new business on to our airports.”

Winter Haven Regional Airport just signed a new lease with the Seaplane Pilots Association to rent office space in the airport’s main terminal building, Vacha said.

“For them, this was a step in the right direction toward their goal of constructing a large, standalone Seaplane Pilots Association Facility here at the Winter Haven Regional Airport. The SPA has been fund-raising for the past few years, working toward this facility, and Steve McCaughey, their executive director, is excited to be based here and looks forward to the future opportunity’s this move may bring.”

In addition to partnerships with the FAA, FDOT and the administrators of Polk County’s four airports, Vacha credited Polk County’s educational institutions’ focus on aerospace as one reason aviation is doing so well here. “Polk State College, Southeastern University, Travis Technical College, Florida Polytechnic University, Central Florida Aerospace Academy, Winter Haven High School and many others that are all focused on teaching individuals about this growing industry” are critical, he said.

“It is an exciting time for Polk County as we witness how our airports, the business community, and the education sector leverage their synergies to advocate for infrastructure funding and ensure the County’s aviation assets continue to be prime candidates to support the current and future growth in the cargo and private aviation segments,” said CFDC’s  Senior Director of Business Resiliency and Global Trade Javier Marin.

“Polk County is proud of its ability to cater to several different economic activities within its boundaries: private/ corporate jet service at Bartow Regional Airport, large cargo at Lakeland Linder International Airport, recreational aviation at Lake Wales Airport, and Seaplane operations at Jack Brown SPB in Winter Haven. Kudos to our airport directors and aviation community for positioning Polk County to be a strong player in Florida’s bright future in aviation and aerospace.”

For more information about how to partner with the CFDC contact Lindsay Zimmerman at lindsay@cfdc.org.