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Florida’s Airglades Airport aims to become perishable cargo hub by 2021

Airglades Airport, a municipal airport 55 miles east of Fort Myers and 100 miles northwest of Miami International Airport, is poised to become a multi-billion-dollar commercial hub for perishable cargo from South America, according to a news release.

Backers say the airport’s location on a major trucking route places it in the ideal spot for players with industry knowledge.

Flying fresh flowers into Airglades instead of Miami means truckers can start their drives farther north along U.S. 27, saving fuel and the time it takes to navigate out of a busy metro area.

In 2016, Miami International accounted for 89 percent of all U.S. flower imports, handling 215,000 tons of flowers valued at over $1 billion.

Fred Ford, 71, an airport executive and consultant with five decades of experience, has been one of the driving forces behind the decade-long struggle to transform the rural Florida airport into a cargo hub. The project is estimated to cost $650 million, with $20 million already invested by Ford and Florida Cargo Fresh, a consortium of partners that includes U.S. Sugar and Hilliard Bros., two large agricultural companies that own almost all of the land surrounding the airport.

The sale involves almost 3,000 acres, an area a little smaller than Miami International Airport. U.S. Sugar and Hilliard Bros. will be the owner and operator of the new commercial airport once all final approvals are granted.

If it actually happens, Airglades International Airport would become the first Federal Aviation Administration-sanctioned and privatized commercial cargo airport in the United States.

“We will submit what’s called the airport privatization program application. It includes the business plan, the financing plan, how does this work, the qualifications of the operator,” Ford said in a newspaper interview.

“We already know we pass the fitness test. The revenue sourced to operate the airport is there. Once that’s approved, then we can execute the purchase agreement and be eligible to receive federal grants to reimburse part of the public utility portion — the runway, taxiway.” He hopes to submit the final application to the FAA sometime this year and to have conceptual agreements between investors and growers completed by the first half of 2019.

The new cargo hub would add about 1,000 jobs in its first year to one of Florida’s poorest counties with the third highest unemployment rate in the state. It would also add considerable tax revenue to the county.

“By year three to five, I’d say a couple of thousand jobs,” said Ford.

A maintenance repair overhaul facility is expected to employ 650 people. That facility will operate a training center to teach people how to convert passenger aircraft to handle freight.

“Potentially it is a good deal [for us], but it’s also a good deal for the county,” Ford said. “They’re getting a huge economic benefit and jobs without having to spend a nickel to get it done. Nobody else has come along with a willingness to do this. What the county gets for the airport will be more than compensated for by the fuel taxes, ad valorem taxes, the employment.”

Ford has been working hard to demonstrate to growers, importers and other users how much they will save by relocating their operations from Miami.

“To get them to pick up sticks and move to Clewiston is not an easy sell,” said Ford. “The numbers were so good, the growers were skeptical. It looks like the savings is in excess of 25 percent. But it has to be that to get people to pick up sticks. These companies are so competitive, they can’t afford a competitor to have a cost advantage over them. This is a facility designed specifically for their needs and there’s room to grow. They must commit before we build.”

He anticipates that site work will begin in the first half of 2019.

“We think the actual construction phase can be completed in 18 to 24 months, so 2021 is go time,” Ford said. “That’s the target.”