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BMA: Deserving of community pride
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Updated: 04/04/2013 08:00:03AM

BMA: Deserving of community pride

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The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, “A date which will live in infamy,” drawing the United States into World War II.

By coincidence, ground was broken the next day for construction of Bartow Army Airfield on a parcel of land north of Bartow purchased earlier in the year by the city government.

Training of Army Air Corps pilots began in Bartow in November 1942. (The United States Air Force was later created from a rib taken from the Army Air Corps.) From 1945 to 1950, the war over, ownership of the facility reverted to the city.

From 1950 to 1960, the Air Force stepped back in, and what was then Bartow Air Base was operated by civilian contractors as a USAF pilot training facility.

At least one of NASA’s first generation of astronauts trained at Bartow Air Base, and several young pilots returned to Bartow to marry young women they had met during flight training.

In 1960, in a Pentagon economy move, many small air bases were deemed surplus to the USAF’s needs and marked for closure, Bartow Air Base among them.

While many cities appealed to Congress to preserve their bases, Bartow asked the federal government to turn Bartow Air Base back over to the city. The feds were glad to oblige.

From 1960 to 1967, the airport was operated as something of a stepchild of city government under supervision of the city manager’s office. Grass grew in cracks in the runways, and vacant buildings languished from neglect.

In 1967, a group of community leaders asked the city commission to turn over the facility to them, allowing them to develop what had become Bartow Municipal Airport as a major industrial park and a general aviation airport.

The commission turned down the request, but asked the Legislature to create the Bartow Municipal Airport Authority. It would be comprised of members of the city commission, but with a separate staff answering directly to the commission, no longer operated under the umbrella of city hall.

Thus began the rebirth of Bartow Municipal Airport, and before long BMA was generating $1 million a year in industrial park rentals and another $1 million from flight operations (primarily aviation fuel sales and hangar rentals).

Obsolete buildings were razed, and new ones built. Prospective industrial park tenants went on a waiting list for the next vacancy. Both T-hangar units and larger conventional hangars were rented as quickly as they could be built.

While federal regulations do not permit airport revenues to be diverted to the city budget, the airport is self-supporting, getting not a dime from city coffers.

The airport authority has had only two airport managers over the space of 45-plus years. Under the leadership of Benjamin L. Durrance Jr., until his death, and since then, Cynthia Barrow, BMA has built a reputation as one of the finest general aviation community airports in the southeastern United States. The Federal Aviation Administration has pumped several grants into the airport, primarily for runway improvements.

Unlike most airports, the BMA control tower is operated at the expense of the airport, not the FAA.

While the flagging economy has cut into industrial park rentals, the airport is wisely maintaining vacant buildings in top condition for future occupancy.

“We want to be ready when the economy recovers,” Mrs. Barrow said in a speech to the Bartow Rotary Club last week.

One of the major challenges is to make the airport restaurant a viable operation. Located in the new airport terminal building, which also boasts an aviation historical museum as well as administrative offices, the restaurant was envisioned as a destination facility that would draw locals and visitors alike. It has not happened.

The three biggest problems, to quote a popular saying about real estate values, are location, location, and location.

Though it overlooks the airport’s three runways — giving it a unique ambiance — the restaurant is a little tricky to find, even with a series of signs placed every few hundred feet along the airport entry road, reminiscent of the Burma-Shave highway signs of yesteryear.

The best solution, in our view, is to find an operator who will cater primarily to people employed at the airport industrial park with fast, tasty lunches. Creating a “destination restaurant,” though an attractive concept, is like pushing a piece of rope up a hill.

The city commission wisely abandoned the idea of building a new entry road that would have cut across revenue-producing industrial park property to provide even more direct access to the restaurant.

Old-timers will recall that the present airport entrance replaced an earlier one, and was supposed to solve all access problems. There is no magic bullet.

Restaurant challenges aside, Bartow Municipal Airport is a major asset to the Bartow community, and is widely recognized for its excellence.

For this, Ben Durrance, Cindy Barrow, and a succession of city commissioners are to be commended.

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