Late in 2013 a study was released by PricewaterhouseCoopers that ranked Florida above 49 other states as the most attractive location for aviation entities to do business. Governor Rick Scott took the report in stride, suggesting it was an indicator his business-friendly policies were poised to reap economic rewards for the Sunshine State.
Aviation has been big news in Florida for 100 years. It was in 1914 when Tony Jannus began hauling passengers across Tampa Bay in an undeniably spartan Benoist. In the process he established the first scheduled airline passenger service — the world’s first airline.
One hundred years later aviation is still a big deal in Florida, and it’s getting bigger. Smack dab in the center of the state lies Lakeland. Home of the Detroit Tigers spring training facility, it’s also home to the annual SUN ‘n FUN International Fly-In and Expo. Both are major tourist draws that are well known.
What’s less well known is that the annual fly-in is, in fact, a major fundraising event that supports educational programs year round. And those educational programs have become the basis for a movement that could have statewide —and potentially a national — impact.
It started with a conversation between John Small, an employee of the Polk County School System, and Rick Garcia, the founder and president of Gulf Coast Avionics.
“When I came to work for the school district, Rick mentioned to me that we should do a school like the collegiate high school, based on aviation,” Small recalls.
Small got to work. He openly acknowledges that partnerships became the key component to his ultimate success.
“I pitched the academy [to then SUN 'n FUN president] John Burton, and the rest is history,” he says.
The school is thriving today with a 100% graduation rate and a growing history of virtually all its students going on to college.
“If you can maximize the resources that are in your community, it works out better,” says Small. “When you get outside entities, such as business partners, to help you create and design the program — it’s the difference between a moped and a Ducati. There’s more synergy.”
There is an expression that suggests from small things, big things come. In this case a conversation became a goal, and the goal became the Central Florida Aerospace Academy, and that presented even greater opportunity —if only someone would pick up the torch and run with it.
“I’m an educator,” Small explains. “I’m not an expert in the aviation business. And there’s only one of me. But there’s an entity now that can align resources that helps me provide opportunity for kids. If I look a step further, it provides economic development.”
The entity Small is referring to is the Polk Aviation Alliance. Essentially an industry specific advocacy organization, the alliance provides diverse entities with a means of communicating and working together that simply wouldn’t exist without it. Its membership includes airports, tourist attractions, educational institutions, consulting groups, privately owned businesses, individual business people, and even students.
SUN ‘n FUN’s current president, John ‘Lites’ Leenhouts, says, “SUN n’ FUN recognizes that we’re not a single stand-alone entity. By being part of the Alliance we’ve enhanced our impact.”
Local entities that never saw themselves as having opportunities available through aviation or aerospace are realizing they do, in fact, have great potential in an entirely new area of endeavor.
Polk State College is a part of Florida’s network of state institutions that offer post-secondary education to students at a very low cost. In late 2012 the college brought Eric Crump on board as its initial Aerospace Program Director to develop and implement degree programs, beginning with pilot science and aerospace administration.
Crump acknowledges the daunting nature of developing multiple college level courses with limited staffing, saying, “I can’t do this all myself, I need help.” His secret weapon for success is the development of partnerships. “They’re essential,” he insists. “You can’t do this the right way and be forward thinking without partners — good partners.”
Existing relationships with the Polk County School System allowed the college to offer dual-enrollment options to high school students in the county. Yet the college’s decision to also become involved in the Alliance has allowed Crump and Polk State College to establish even broader partnerships that are paying real dividends. The college is involved with SUN ‘n FUN on a year-round basis now and sponsors the forums offered during the annual fly-in.
The Alliance has also provided a vehicle for CFAA, SUN ‘n FUN, Polk State College, and others to benefit from a growing relationship with JetBlue.
The New York-based airline takes the concept of corporate social responsibility seriously. It has long partnered with Aviation High School in Long Island City, New York. Now, it has added a partnership with the Polk Aviation Alliance, which allows it to interact directly and indirectly with students at CFAA and Polk State College, as well as those in a fledgling technical school program designed to train airframe and powerplant mechanics, as well as specialized avionics training.
All this activity and media attention may have played a role in Governor Scott’s decision to personally visit SUN ‘n FUN this year. Scott is the first sitting governor to make the trip from Tallahassee and experience the event first-hand.
Leenhouts took particular pride in showing the governor the high volume of out-of-state and foreign visitors drawn to the event, and the growing economic impact of the partnerships they’ve fostered and promoted.
After touring the grounds with the governor for nearly two hours, Lites says he looked the governor in the eye and asked him if he now understood why so many put so much effort into this event and these educational programs. According to Lites, the governor replied, “I get it. I’ll be back next year.”