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Joe Lopano: Tampa International master plan is about living up to George Bean’s legacy

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

As Tampa International Airport’s master plan expansion moves through Phase One, the Hillsborough Aviation Authority is now looking toward Phase Two.

This week, the Authority approved more than $132 million to pay for construction of a retail and office space area near the airport’s new rental car facility, which is also still under construction.

Over the past month, TIA CEO Joe Lopano has been making the rounds in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, keeping various local governments and agencies informed of all the latest developments.

On Friday, the road show took Lopano to the Oxford Exchange, where he spoke with approximately 70 people assembled as part of the weekly Cafe Con Tampa lecture series.

He began, as he usually does, by praising the man behind the creation of TIA, George Bean, who Lopano said possessed two qualities sadly missing with leaders today — vision and courage.

Lopano, referring to how the original cost for the airport came in one-hundred-percent over budget, said Bean “not only had the vision to say this is where we’re going to go, he had the courage to march through that and get it done … even though he got a lot of bad press and a lot of criticism.”

In calling for his TIA master plan, Lopano challenged planners to transcend what Bean envisioned in the late 1960s. Those planners came back with a “cheap” plan, he said, one that was unsatisfactory to him.

“I could have kicked the can down the road and did nothing if I wanted to, but it wasn’t responsible,” Lopano said, adding it wouldn’t be living up to the legacy of TIA.

“We’re doing what we said we would do.”

That includes adding direct international flights, one of the mandates the Aviation Authority was looking for when they hired Lopano in 2010. He accomplished that, in part, by offering economic incentives to the airlines, a tactic eschewed his predecessor, Louis Miller.

As an example, Lopano talked of how incentives helped attract one carrier, Edelweiss Airlines.

“You remember the naysayers said, ‘they’ll be gone after the incentives are over, this is another crazy idea. You know, this guy from Dallas,'” Lopano told the audience. “Well, after a year, when the incentives were over, they doubled their capacity to two a week. Now they’re at four a week.”

Lopano also lavishly praised key members of his team, including Vice-President of Marketing Chris Minner and Janet Zink, who he called “the best public relations government vice president in the country.”

Last month, Tampa Bay area Republican lawmakers — including Dana Young and Jack Latvala — appeared stunned when state Sen. Tom Lee went on the Senate floor to request a state audit of the TIA master plan. Lee, a Brandon Republican, pointed to allegations of “public corruption” made in the Tampa Bay-area media.

Lee cited one report from WFLA-News Channel 8 in March, which claimed the airport was four months behind in the billion-dollar-plus master plan.

To that, Lopano basically said: And your point was, exactly?

“An investigative reporter just recently said we were behind schedule,” Lopano said. “The investigative reporter discovered that I had told my board a month before that, that we were four months behind on a four-year project.”

“So, that’s really Pulitzer Prize winning stuff,” he added sarcastically to laughter in the crowd.

The airport is, in fact, currently under budget, Lopano reported. He expects the public to begin riding the people mover — part of that grand master plan to take people from a newly constructed rental car building to the main airside — by February 2018.

In addition to the WFLA piece, Lee told FloridaPolitics.com the source who put some “meats on the bones” on the story was none other than former Hillsborough County Aviation Authority Board Member Martin Garcia. 

Since his mysterious departure from the board after just six months in 2014, Garcia, who heads a Tampa-based investment firm, has been a constant critic of  airport management, and, along with a few other South Tampa residents, frequently complained at Aviation Authority meetings about the jet noise from planes landing on the runway nearest their homes on the southeast side of the terminal.

But as Lopano frequently repeated over the years, the airport has no control over those flights.

“The airplanes land on the runway that the control tower tells them to land on. I have no discretion on where an airplane lands,” he said. “My responsibility is to provide a runway, markings and lights. The captain decides where he wants to put the airplane down.”

Ninety-six percent of the time, Lopano said, airlines don’t even land on the southeast side.

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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