The Gainesville City Commission covered two separate items involving Gainesville Regional Airport on Thursday, hearing a presentation about the current state of the airport and signing off on a contract to sell UF land at the Airport Industrial Park.
Allan Penksa, CEO of the airport, gave a presentation to the commission about the state of the airport. The presentation came after commissioners asked for more regular updates on the airport’s work in August, when it approved federal grants totaling $5.6 million.
Penksa said the airport is still recovering from the pandemic, but staff have several projects on deck and were able to finish several during the pandemic, including the new three-gate lounge that opened in September.
“And then COVID hit us and we plummeted as everybody in our industry did,” Penksa said.
Passenger traffic dropped to 5 percent of its normal number in April 2020 after COVID-19 shut down travel. In September 2021, traffic had increased to 76 percent with 35,222 passengers, Penska reported.
The airport recently added a second nonstop flight to Miami at the start of November, a month after restarting the daily flight since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the past several months, the Gainesville airport has remained above 75 percent of pre-COVID traffic with 35,222 passengers in September.
The airport employs about 440 people on the general aviation and commercial side of the facility and adds an annual economic impact of $374 million to the community.
Penksa highlighted several projects that will start up soon.
The federal government financed changes to the airport’s runway and taxiways to get airports nationwide on the same page. Penksa said they are figuring out how to best complete the projects without hindering air traffic.
On the general aviation side, the airport needs to repair sections of the apron. Much of the concrete in the area dates to the ‘60s and ‘70s. Besides age, the construction wasn’t designed for the large jets currently using the apron.
Perhaps the largest project will be building a multi-story parking garage on the commercial side of the airport. The facility would take over the current staff parking site.
Penksa said the airport is still evaluating the different options, from prefab to cast-in-place, speed ramp or sloped floor.
The most complicated factor will be price. The pandemic has increased the cost of construction materials, causing problems with the airport’s budget.
“Of course, construction prices right now have got us all quite nervous,” Penksa said. “Our latest estimates show that the cost is going up considerably.”
The airport already has funds set aside and hopes the federal government’s new infrastructure bill will add to its reserves.
The garage would have up to 418 parking spaces, an RTS station and covered taxi stands and walkways.
The other item before the commission was the sale of an 8.3 acre parcel within the Airport Industrial Park to UF Health.
The commission voted to approve the sale unanimously with Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker absent.
The company wants to build a sterile processing center. UF Health currently sterilizes medical tools and items for reuse at the hospitals.
Brad Pollitt with UF Health told the commission that the company wants a separate location to allow other facilities to expand within the hospital building. Plus, he said many nationwide hospitals are moving to external sterilization centers as a method of best practice.
The commission approved the $312,500 price tag. Erik Bredfeldt, the city’s economic development and innovation director, said staff came to the price through two appraisals―one by a company hired by the city and one hired by UF.
City staff and UF split the difference between the appraisals to reach the price point.
Bredfeldt said the city was able to adjust UF Health’s first request for slightly more acreage, allowing Florida Food Service to buy the adjacent 6.3 acres to expand its current operation at the airpark.
The sterile processing center will house around 140 employees, with 73 already at UF Health and the rest being new hires.