Four years ago, the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport accommodated 1.3 million passengers through its 13 gates and single concourse.
At that time, parking was adequate and commercial tenant rents paid to the Sarasota-Manatee Airport Authority were adequate for the airport to operate in self-sustaining fashion.
“We'll break 4.3 million passengers this year,” SRQ President and CEO Rick Piccolo told Sarasota city commissioners at their meeting on Monday. "The month of September, we were up over 21% over last September and we’ll continue to go up these next few months at double digits. The new terminal wing should be open in December of 2024. Allegiant Airlines has already taken all five gates, so you're going to see more exponential growth at the airport.”
The new wing will have five ground-based gates — passengers will board and disembark aircraft outdoors — and will be served by a dedicated security checkpoint. Future plans are to connect the new concourse with Concourse B, which will add three more gates served by jet bridges. Then the airport will have the capacity for 7 million passengers per year.
“We’re just trying to keep up with it,” Piccolo added, explaining why he and airport general counsel Dan Bailey were before them in the final leg in the process of rescinding SRQ’s development of regional impact status and seeking rezoning of 88.84 acres of airport property within the Sarasota city limits.
By Florida statute, a DRI is "any development which, because of its character, magnitude or location, would have a substantial effect upon the health, safety or welfare of citizens of more than one county.”
The airport went under DRI designation in the 1980s when the state exerted more control over major developments. As local planning standards improved over time and on the heels of the 2008 recession, DRI applications declined and, in 2016, the Florida Legislature enabled qualifying properties to voluntarily terminate in lieu of development agreements local jurisdictions.
“There are not too many pieces of dirt that aren't under some sort of shovel right now, and it will probably continue that way into the future and we're trying to be as prepared as we can,” Piccolo said.
Most recently, the airport opened a new cellphone lot which was formerly located in a grass field where other expansion is now planned.
The airport receives no tax dollars to operate, its revenues are derived from landing fees paid by airlines, concessions within the terminal, rental car operations fees, parking fees, general aviation operations and rents paid by tenants in commercial property surrounding the airfield.
Keeping up with the growth, Piccolo explained, is getting expensive, particularly with a new, approximately $100 million parking structure looming on the horizon. To prepare, SRQ has been expanding remote parking facilities — a new lot at University Parkway and Old Bradenton Road is expected to open within weeks — with more on the way in order to relocate parking next to the terminal while the deck is built.
“On Friday we maxed out all our parking,” Piccolo said.
Building more parking to accommodate the growth requires revenue, which is why the airport is working to clear the way for construction of light commercial space along University Parkway, among other passenger service projects, to enhance income.
“Everything south of rental car road is part of the SRQ Gateway Center, and what we've tried to do there is to set the stage for these parcels to be leased out long-term to various commercial tenants,” Bailey said. "Unfortunately, because we've had such a surge in air traffic since the pandemic lifted, we've had to hijack some of those spots and use them for parking. Eventually we hope to be able to reconvert them after we maybe build a parking garage.”
In addition to more parking and consolidating rental car storage and maintenance operations onto one site along Rental Car Road, the airport is planning 171,250 square feet of office space, a 150-seat restaurant and 300 hotel rooms.
“What we would like to do is to develop more hotel, restaurant and office space, which is something that a few years ago when I appeared in front of this commission was one of the desires that the commission had expressed,” Piccolo said. “To be able to do that we would draw rents and fees that go into our coffers and that gives us more financial security to address the needs of the community.”
Development Review Chief Planner Allison Christie told commissioners all of the airport’s seven applications relative to its plans have received Development Review Committee and Planning Board approval. On its way to certain commission approval, though, there was a complication that prevented the trip from leaving the gate.
“The actual development agreement was not included in the agenda backup materials,” City Attorney Robert Fournier pointed out, adding that some details within the agreement pertained to the rezoning requests. He advised that two of the seven applications can be approved, which they were unanimously, and the remaining five will be taken up at the commission’s Nov. 6 meeting.
Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.