Panama City Beach – Big Airport Meeting Today 10.21.09

PANAMA CITY BEACH – A throng of public officials and economic development experts from two counties will meet at the construction site of the new airport at noon on Wednesday for an update on construction progress and airline marketing efforts.

The meeting, announced late Tuesday, is billed as a briefing for Northwest Florida community leaders on plans for the airport’s opening next year, around which several key questions still remain, such as the status of a low-cost carrier operating at the new airport.

Officials declined Tuesday to comment on whether Southwest Airlines had made a decision on committing to the new Northwest Florida-Panama City International Airport, set to begin operation in May. But the importance of Wednesday’s meeting was emphasized.

“I’ll be there and I would encourage you to be there,” said Bill Cramer, vice chairman of the Airport Authority.

An agenda for Wednesday’s noon gathering did not go out until mid-afternoon Tuesday. Many of the same officials who toured the site Monday during “Walton County Day” were invited back for the hurriedly called gathering.

State Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he had been invited for a news conference during which an “announcement” would be made. The invitation had come from individuals involved with bringing Southwest Airlines to the Northwest Florida region, he said.

Panhandle airport officials and private groups in Pensacola, Fort Walton Beach and Panama City have been competing to bring Southwest to their respective airports, including businesses and individuals making “in-kind” monetary pledges.

Airport Executive Director Randy Curtis declined to say whether an announcement of any kind would be made, referring all questions to the meeting’s agenda, which only listed construction progress, plans for grand opening events and airline marketing updates.

County Commissioner Mike Thomas described Wednesday’s gathering of public officials and invited guests as a “pep rally” for the new airport.

“What I know now I can’t say,” Airport Authority Chairman Joe Tannehill said Tuesday. “Come to the terminal at the new airport tomorrow and find out at the same time I will.”

The Airport Authority for the current Panama City-Bay County International Airport, the operations of which will move to the new airport next year, has added two positions to its board for Walton County officials.

Wednesday’s meeting is sponsored by several Bay County and Walton County organizations, including the Bay County Tourism Development Council, the Bay County Economic Development Alliance, and the Bay County and Panama City Beach chambers of commerce.

The tour and briefing, called “Entering the Red Zone: Drive to the Finish at the Northwest Florida-Panama City International  Airport,” is also sponsored by the Walton County TDC, the Walton County Chamber of Commerce and Coastal Vision 3000/THE Beach.

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