The new Panama City-Bay County International Airport in West Bay has always been a matter of faith. The public has been asked to trust officials to peer into the future and accurately gauge the facility’s economic viability.
However, right now they’re having difficulty seeing the end of the runway.
It was hardly reassuring to hear Airport Authority Vice Chairman Bill Cramer announce last Tuesday that he has “some very grave concerns about the financial health of this project” after members continued to disagree over the length and composition of the runway. In July, the board voted 4-1 to build an 8,400-foot concrete runway, which will cost (in the short term) $5.3 million more than an asphalt surface. Cramer dissented, arguing that the board should not make a decision on the runway until it had more information on other airport costs.
Last week, the board discovered that bids for the terminal building came in $14 million over what had been budgeted. Cramer said that higher price tag, combined with still-unknown costs of other airport features, now makes the concrete runway unfeasible.
In July, Airport Executive Director Randy Curtis said final bids for the terminal construction might provide a cash cushion for spending a higher amount on the runway if the winning terminal bid comes in significantly lower. Oops. Back to the drawing board.
How were they off by so much?
Meanwhile, Lynn Haven-based Phoenix Construction is continuing to pressure the Airport Authority to commit one way or the other on the runway. In July, owner James Finch insisted that the board choose then between concrete and asphalt, before the costs of materials and gas increased the price tag. Now he’s given members a February deadline to decide if they want to extend the runway to 10,000 feet – at an additional cost of $4.5 million.
Why is there so much uncertainty over the runway this late in the game? Officials decided eight years ago to build a new airport in West Bay. Construction has begun on a facility that is scheduled to open in 2010. And yet, officials are still haggling over what kind of runway they want or need, in addition to being in the dark about other expenses.
As Airport Authority member Gerry Clemons (who voted for the concrete runway last month) said Tuesday, “There is something wrong with this picture.”
Indeed. Airport officials promised us a Rembrandt, but so far they have delivered “Dogs Playing Poker.”
Many large construction projects wind up costing more than initially forecast, due in part to the significant lag time between planning and building. The price of materials, labor and fuel increases, and often unforeseen delays (weather, permitting, etc.) push back the timetable and add dollars. So it won’t be surprising if the airport’s originally estimated price tag of $331 million winds up being higher. Officials wisely have maintained a contingency reserve fund, which recently increased by $4 million when they scaled back landscaping plans. The question is whether it will be enough.
Plants and shrubs won’t be the only things being pruned from the budget. Board member Rick Koehnemann suggested that “value engineering” could be used to reduce the cost of the terminal building. At this rate, that might involve erecting a Quonset hut.
To have the board’s vice chairman question the economic viability of the airport, at this stage of the project, turns on yellow lights that could land a 747 in a fog bank.
The Airport Authority’s focus on the big picture down the road – developing an “aerotropolis” and attracting major air carriers flying large planes – won’t be taken seriously if it can’t get the smaller things right at the beginning.
The new Airport will only be about 10 miles from The Best Panama City Beach Condos.