Gainesville airport receives $5.6M in grants

The Gainesville City Commission unanimously approved two federal grants totaling over $5.6 million to the Gainesville Regional Airport (GNV) at Thursday’s commission meeting.

Because the city owns the land, the commission signs off on federal grants, though the action is more of a formality with little discussion.

Commissioners Adrian Hayes-Santos and Harvey Ward both noted that they would like to know more about what happens at the airport. Ward suggested a once or twice a year presentation to keep the commission up-to-date and excited about new developments.

The first grant totals just over $2.1 million and comes from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) under the Airport Improvement Program. The funds will cover engineering costs for improvements to the apron and taxiway that the FAA finds important.

The Airport Coronavirus Rescue Grant Program (ACRGP) provided the second grant of more than $3.5 million. Like the American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds sent to municipalities and counties, this grant covers costs incurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Allan Penksa, the CEO of GNV, said in a phone interview that the apron upgrades will allow the airport to strengthen portions of the general aviation ramp to better accommodate larger business and charter aircraft.

“Some of those now we have to park on the commercial apron where we really don’t have a lot of space,” Penksa said.

GNV will replace some of the hardware and software for its airfield lighting control system, and the grant reimburses GNV for its airport layout plan update.

The airport will also adjust the shape of its taxiways to follow new FAA standards.

“We don’t really have any issue with the current geometry, but they’re trying to get all airports sort of on the same cookie-cutter taxiway geometry,” Penksa said.

The new changes will remove angled connections from a taxiway to a runway and rounded edges on the end of a runway.

The projects will require multi-phase funding down the road, but Penksa said the FAA will likely continue to finance the construction because the changes are a high priority for the agency.

However, Penksa said GNV is focused on its own high priority projects―namely, apron maintenance and parking.

“We were parking folks in the grass; we had some temporary parking lots set up,” Penksa said. “So getting a longer term solution for parking once the pandemic is over is going to be important to us.”

GNV is looking at different options to reduce the cost of new parking facilities. Current options include a prefab garage, instead of a cast-in-place garage, or a sloped parking facility.

The more uncertain part to Penksa is the labor and construction market. Shortages abound for workers and material costs have risen, including jet fuel on the West Coast that has yet to impact GNV.

Penksa said the federal government’s ramped up infrastructure spending and a limited supply of contractors in the local area causes companies to raise prices on new construction.

“The problem is, though, that construction prices are going crazy,” Penksa said.

He explained that an $11 million project GNV would hopefully squeeze into a $10 million budget now costs $15.5 million with the same budget.

COVID-19 shut down flights around the world, and GNV felt that. In May 2020, the airport had 14-17 percent of its normal flights.

“We’ve been slowly climbing our way back,” Penksa said, reporting that December 2020 flights totaled 50 percent of the pre-pandemic amount and July 2021 was almost at 90 percent.

But, Penksa said the build up is slowing with the delta variant’s rise.

The second grant, giving the COVID-19 relief funds, will help keep the airport’s books balanced and make up for past expenses when the airport operated with little traffic.

Penksa said the funds will help GNV and its vendors weather the storm without massive layoffs or shutting down.

In fact, the airport has grown. In July, it cut the ribbon on a new terminal expansion, and Penksa said the three new daily flights to Dallas are performing well.

“If COVID subsides and we get back to normal, we should be in a really great position to grow,” Penksa said.

GNV’s annual economic impact on North Central Florida totals more than $374 million, and commercial traffic topped 558,000 passengers in 2019, an all-time record.

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