Tourism is the largest industry in Florida; nearly every community across the state has a thriving tourism industry, and Arcadia is no different. Our community has a lot to offer such as the Peace River, where visitors can canoe, kayak, and take airboat tours along the river. Additionally, the Peace River is a part of The Peace River Formation, a geological formation that has developed over the course of tens of millions of years. Tourists walking the shores of the river can find countless fossils; some of which are 25 million years old and can include sharks’ teeth, whale fossils and mammoth bones.
Another major attraction to our community is the Arcadia All-Florida Championship Rodeo, which dates to 1928 and attracts spectators and competitors from all over the nation. The rodeo has an economic impact of over $1 million and, in 2014, approximately 15,700 people traveled to the rodeo from out of town. Our general aviation airport, the Arcadia Municipal Airport, provides a vital connection to our community, bringing tourism dollars and so much more.
After tourism, agriculture is the second largest industry in Florida. Our state is number one in the production of citrus, and more than 90 percent of America’s orange juice is made from Florida-grown oranges. Our airport supports this industry through its connection with the Peace River Citrus plant. For Peace River Citrus, which is based in Vero Beach and has facilities across the state, general aviation provides a fast and efficient means to travel and oversee production across multiple sites in a short amount of time.
The Arcadia Municipal Airport also houses an agricultural flight school, which trains pilots who protect Florida’s agricultural production. Agricultural pilots, more commonly known as crop-duster pilots, fly over the citrus groves throughout Florida and apply crop protection products. Assisting farmers and the agricultural industry is just one of the ways that general aviation supports our local economy and food production.
Additionally, an unfortunate reality to living in Florida is the threat of devastating natural disasters. All too common we are hit with multiple hurricanes each year. After a major disaster, airports play a vital role in getting aid to those in need. After Hurricane Charley hit in 2004, the Arcadia Municipal Airport was transformed into a local command center. For about four weeks, FEMA, state troopers, volunteer firefighters and a host of other organizations used the airport as a staging area. From there they delivered water, meals, and assisted local police and fire departments with the recovery efforts.
Beyond disaster relief, local airports are important for urgent medical care. Here in Arcadia, after a terrible car accident, it’s not uncommon for emergency services to go from the scene of the accident to the airport by ambulance, where they will transport the patient by helicopter to Sarasota Memorial Hospital or other nearby trauma centers so they can receive the urgent, lifesaving treatment they need. For many communities across the country, the local airport serves as a critical lifeline.
There are over 100 public-use airports across the state of Florida, and each of them plays an important role in supporting their community. Local airports like ours are vital to supporting industries across the state with an economic impact of $7.7 billion each year, and when hurricane season hits, local airports are crucial to recovery efforts. These airports are a literal lifeline to our communities, in great part because our members of Congress and FAA oversee these airports and ensure that airports and aircraft of all sizes have access to our transportation system. But that may not always be the case. In the last couple of years, there has been a movement afoot, pushed predominantly by the biggest airports and airlines to privatize our air traffic control system, putting a governing board of private stakeholders in charge and almost ensuring that our system would cater to the biggest urban cities instead of communities of all sizes.
Our nation’s small and mid-size airports are the backbone of our local communities economically and support many critical services. I’m proud of the work of our organization, the Friends of Arcadia Airport, in conjunction with the Recreational Aviation Foundation, has done to renovate and revitalize Arcadia Municipal. Friends had the vision to develop, fund and construct a 3-acre Fly-In/Camp-Out Center right on the airport that attracts many out of town pilots to visit. These are pilots that probably would not have done so if not for the beautiful on airport campsite that we call Aviation City. These visits help improve the airports fuel sales, operation numbers and showcases what the airport has to offer as well as having a positive impact on the local restaurants, shops and attractions.
Friends recently held a capital campaign to add a full-service restroom with hot showers in support of Aviation City. We applied for grants, solicited donations from local businesses and our members and raised over $45,000 to build the new facility without using any taxpayer dollars. Add this to the over $30,000 we contributed in developing the Aviation City campground and that means a small local airport support group can have a substantial impact on any airport. By thinking outside the box Friends of Arcadia Airport has managed to gain national recognition and have pilots visit from as far away as Scotland to camp out here with their airplane.
Small airports are closing at an alarming rate and once closed they are gone forever. Those communities then find it hard to attract new businesses. Local volunteers are vital to maintaining the health of all our small airports. Let’s make sure to keep the Air Traffic Control System under government control as privatization will threaten sources of funding for small GA airports.
George Chase is president of the Friends of Arcadia Airport, www.foaa.us, www.aviationcity.org.