At the heart of a controversial plan for a huge new development near the northwest edge of the Everglades – dubbed “Big Sugar City” by environmentalists – is a crucial, but less noticed proposal for a $400 million makeover of a flyspeck of an airport in rural Hendry County.
The goal is to transform sleepy Airglades Airport, where skydiving is the reigning business, into an international hub for perishable cargo to rival Miami International Airport about 80 miles to the southeast. If it doesn’t happen, Big Sugar City, also known as Sugar Hill, may not become a reality either.
Airglades International LLC (AIA), the private outfit selected by Hendry County to develop the airport, has a straightforward business plan: add a new 10,000 or 12,000-foot runway, build a one-stop air cargo complex and siphon off MIA’s multi-billion dollar perishable cargo business – everything from fresh food and flowers to drugs and medical shipments.
Last year, MIA accounted for 72 percent of all U.S. perishable imports.
“The idea is to take the airport and turn it into a relief valve for MIA’s perishable air cargo in order to make more room for passenger growth and regular air cargo at MIA,” said AIA President Fred Ford. “We’re not here to steal, rob or purloin any of their key core business.”
Officials at MIA, who say their airport has plenty of capacity to expand, appear unconcerned.
“Fred told us about the concept, but I don’t think it’s even getting off the ground yet,” said Joseph Napoli, chief of staff and senior policy advisor for the Miami-Dade Aviation Department. “It’s many years into the future, I believe. We are very neutral to it.”
Indeed, AIA’s plan might seem laughable except for two things: the Federal Aviation Administration is taking it seriously and AIA’s players, including majority investors U.S. Sugar and rancher/grower Hilliard Brothers of Florida, have plenty of financial firepower at their command.
FAA’S AIRPORT PRIVATIZATION PROGRAM
Hendry County is seeking federal approval to privatize its airport under the FAA’s Airport Privatization Pilot Program. The program, authorized by Congress in 1996, allows local governments to sell or lease publicly owned airports to private developers with certain restrictions.
An advertisement in the September issue of Florida Trend magazine touts Airglades’ ability to promote economic development to the surrounding area. “Bringing jobs in for a smooth landing in southern Florida’s sweet spot,” the headline says.
Clearly, Hendry could use the huge shot in the arm that a successful air cargo hub could bring. Hendry is among Florida’s poorest counties, with the state’s highest unemployment rate, 13.1 percent in August.
The FAA approved Hendry County’s preliminary application in 2010. Since then, the county has negotiated airport management and purchase/sale agreements with AIA for the 2,800-acre airport facility. Last month, following FAA approval, AIA took over management of Airglades Airport, Ford said.
The county’s price tag for the airport, located off U.S. 27 about five miles west of Clewiston, would depend on how many jobs are created. Ford said the floor price is $5 million.
“What we are doing now is working with (MIA’s) users and the tenants and brokers, the flower importers and such, and asking them, “If you had a clean canvas to build an airport what would it look like?” said Ford.
Ford did not discuss how who, exactly, would pay the estimated $400 million cost to develop Airglades, or how much each would pay.
Neither Hendry County Administrator Charles Chapman, who is shepherding the Airglades proposal, nor County Commissioner Karson Turner, who told Fort Myers Florida Weekly in March that Airglades development could be “a generation changer,” responded to requests for comment.
The airport property is adjacent to U.S. Sugar-owned land the state has an option to purchase next year under the 2010 state deal that seeks to restore the natural flow of Lake Okeechobee water south to the Everglades – land that is also part of the massive Sugar Hill development now under review by state officials.
On Sept. 10, dozens of environmental groups and interests wrote to Gov. Rick Scott asking for a public discussion on how the Sugar Hill property might impact long term Everglades restoration. The land the state has an option on is just southwest of Lake Okeechobee and could be used to move excess water from south into the Everglades, and not dump it into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers and estuaries.
Scott later put out a letter declaring that the state’s reviewing agencies “hold a special responsibility to ensure that proper rigor and careful, thorough evaluation” is given to the Sugar Hill proposal.
SUGAR HILL OPPOSED LAST WEEK
On Oct. 3, both the South Florida Water Management District and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection announced their opposition to Sugar Hill.
“The district recommends against approving the proposed [Sugar Hill] sector plan as it does not provide sufficient information to show that future Everglades restoration efforts will not be harmed,” wrote district water supply bureau chief Dean Powell in a letter to the State Land Planning Agency.
Hendry officials are preparing a draft environmental assessment for presentation to the FAA before the end of the year. During the FAA’s review period, public hearings and workshops will be held.
The FAA can either approve the county’s assessment and issue a “Finding of No Significant Impact,” or decide that a more detailed environmental impact statement is require. Such a finding could, at a minimum, significantly delay AIA’s plans.
Ford said he expects a decision from the FAA next year.
Planning documents describe numerous improvements in store for the Hendry County airport, including upgraded infrastructure such as lighting and drainage. They say the principal markets for perishable air cargo goods will be Central and South America. About 15 to 20 cargo aircraft are anticipated to use Airglades at the outset, with 25 to 35 flights five years after opening.
“No more than 100 flights a day at build out,” said Ford. Huge Boeing 747-400 cargo jets are among the aircraft that could land there.
AIA’s goal is to break ground by 2017.
Ford, a former airport manager, is also president of Florida Fresh Cargo, an investor group of local agricultural interests that first pitched the concept of a perishable air cargo complex at Airglades to Hendry County in early 2010.
“The growth in interest and scope made (Florida Fresh) realize that in order to fully realize its potential, other key business partners would be necessary,” says a history of the project on Hendry County’s web site.
U.S. Sugar and Hilliard Brothers “separately created a new entity named Sugar Hill, expressly for the purpose of joining (Florida Fresh) to form a new company…AIA” in February 2012,” the project history says.
Sugar Hill envisions the transformation of 43,300 acres – or 67.7 square miles – of sugar cane fields, citrus groves and pastureland into 18,000 homes and 25 million square feet of space for manufacturing, warehousing and other kinds of businesses.
Development would occur over the next 46 years, until 2060.
While the Sugar Hill Sector Plan has encountered opposition, the proposal to develop Airglades largely has avoided critical notice. For example, the southern regional director for the Florida Wildlife Federation, Martha Musgrove, said the group “has never focused on Airglades Airport.”
Musgrove said that while Florida Wildlife’s primary interest is the habitat of animals, her organization does recognize the need for economic growth in the area.
According to Ford, the success of the Airglades initiative will decide the fate of Sugar Hill.
“A lot of people don’t read the fine print (in the Sugar Hill proposal) and have concluded this is the plan for the future. It is not. It is a plan if the airport is successful – what could be done on the property in and around the airport,” Ford said.