It was a big leap forward and the start of a new day in Bay County as 10 years ago on Saturday, the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport opened.
“I can remember I was invited to the grand opening, and I have a t-shirt somewhere that says, “I was there when the first jet landed,” recalled Don Crisp, a former member of the Airport Authority Board.
Moved from Panama City’s backyard to 30 minutes north, the airport connected our area to major cities and created economic opportunities. But looking back, those who worked on the project recall a difficult journey.
“That cliché, you know, ‘if you build it, they will come.’ Well I’ll tell you something, it wasn’t really the case,” recalled former Airport Authority board member Rick Koehnemann.
Koehnemann said that the board knew they had to secure Southwest Airlines’ business in order to have enough passenger traffic through the airport and make the project worth the money.
“I’ll tell you what, I said a few Rosaries during that period of time to hopefully make it all work out,” he added.
The board faced legal setbacks over environmental issues since the site they chose to build on encroached on wetlands.
“We spent a lot of money on legal fees to be honest with you,” Koehnemann said.
The board also faced public opposition because of the convenience of the old airport to Panama City and the inconvenient location of the new one.
But after 10 years of planning and work, the airport was built.
It boosted the area’s economic growth and development as a tourist driver and a business connector, connecting tourists with second home from Tennessee and Houston and the military and civilians who work on the Air Force bases quickly to Washington, D.C.
“Tyndall and Eglin both have a lot of people that go back and forth between Washington, and contractors, especially considering what Michael did,” longtime local businessman Jack Bishop said.
“Tyndall’s payroll is $300 million or something like that,” Bishop said. “You know, that just doesn’t fall off turnip trucks.”
But like all industries, the airport has been severely affected by the coronavirus.
“At the peak we were down about 95%, and now we’re probably at about 70 to 75% less,” airport executive director Parker McClellan said.
But McClellan said he is confident that the airport will bounce back.
“It’s a speed bump in the growth,” he said. “The airport opened in the middle of an oil spill, and things were a little slow, but look at where we are today. Last year we finished with 1.3 million passengers going through the airport. We opened with at the old airport the last year it was about 325,000.”
Despite the rocky journey and public criticism, the original board members have no regrets.
“So many things you work on don’t happen but that one did and I’m pleased for all of us that it was fulfilled,” Crisp said.
“I think it’s one of the best things that I’ve ever done,” Koehnemann added.