Second of two parts.
DIVERGENT THINKING, n. An aspect of creativity characterized by an ability to produce unusual but appropriate responses to problems.
The folks with businesses and a stake in Leesburg International Airport are at loggerheads with the city over what role the airport should play and how it should grow.
Lately, the businesses have started to take an active part in determining their future, and they have a list of projects they want the city to accomplish. The biggest demand is to reform the way leases are granted at the airport, where the land is city-owned and the businesses own their buildings.
City officials are resisting the procedure. Leesburg wants the airport to make money, so it is hiding behind a claim that state and federal grants require things to stay just the way they are.
This is a perfect example of why businesses — often rightly — hate government.
First of all, the notion that state and federal grants require the same lease structure is bogus. It merely says the airport should be as self-sustaining as possible given the individual circumstances. So, change can be accomplished.
But before the city jumps in, a few minor things ought to be settled, such as what the airport's role in the community should be.
In the past, the airport's manager insisted it would be a commercial field with passenger service. This is was an absurd dream, with two other international airports within an hour of Leesburg.
"There is a vision developing for the airport that is fluid but improving," City Manager Jay Evans said.
That answer points up Job No. 1 that the airport advisory board and city should tackle: Define what the airport should be.
Certainly, the easy answer is "the best general aviation airport in Florida," but what does that mean? It means, for example, that the airport needs to expand to offer a helicopter flight school and perhaps a handy little diner that could be marketed to the public, not just the airport. It needs a unified marketing program for sure. It needs to attract and keep basic aviation business.
Most important, city officials must decide whether the airport is a place to make money for city coffers or a potential economic engine that should be nurtured to help rev up Leesburg's sorry economy. If city officials are smart, they will choose the latter.
There is only one place where commerce is growing in Leesburg, and that is on the stretch of U.S. Highway 441 near the airport. It is there that the city has a chance to make a difference, and so far, it has ignored the opportunity.
Instead of wasting time and money to draw untried business, Leesburg should hook up with those already at the airport and do at least what it was willing to do for those without a track record and not even currently part of the community. That would involve a big change in how the city views the airport.
The businesses are right when they say the structure of the current leases discourages investors from backing businesses. But instead of back-biting about how troublesome the businesses at the airport are and how the uppity airport advisory board should be abolished, the city should sit down with Chuck Brainerd of Firehawk Helicopters, who is leading the effort to change the lease structure and get something hammered out that benefits everyone.
The way to go about this is to wipe everything off the table and start completely anew, as if the city had just built an airport yesterday rather than 70 years ago. What is the ideal way to set up leases? Perhaps in exchange for payments through leases, the city could at some point get a small cut of the profits. Maybe the city would agree to buy buildings at the end of a lease in exchange for middle-of-the-road payments through the years. Leases from other airports might help guide the way.
Anything is possible — if city officials will change their attitude and negotiate in good faith. It's in their court.