“This is not an airport. This is a business center,” says Glenn Ball, manager of Palatka Municipal Airport (28J) in northern Florida. “There’s a difference.”
Everywhere you look around the city of Palatka, something is being built. Marinas, restaurants and motels are going up on the St. Johns River shores. Inland, it’s industrial buildings ranging from small to massive. Housing developments are popping up to support all that growth.
Palatka’s airport is among the leaders of that growth spurt: an impressive new terminal building, runway extensions and lighting improvements, corporate hangars and 44 new T-hangars are only part of the activity.
Only a short distance from the American Heritage St. Johns River, Palatka Municipal Airport-Kay Larkin Field is in an ideal spot to support northeast Florida’s economic boom.
Owned and operated by the city of Palatka since 1946, 28J is convenient to beaches, Jacksonville, Daytona Beach and Gainesville, making it a gateway to inland Florida.
Its three active runways are 3,000, 3,500 and 6,003 feet long, the latter equipped with GPS, NDB and PAPI, and accommodating 65,000-pound dual-wheel aircraft. Both shorter runways have the PAPI landing aid.
A fourth runway was closed to create a thriving industrial and business park with taxiway access to the airport. In addition, 1,000 acres of land are available for lease.
Planning is near completion for extension of Runway 09/27, along with surface strengthening. Restrictions requiring displacement were eliminated recently, and the current 6,003 feet soon should be authorized by the FAA as 6,463 feet. A 1,500-foot extension, when finished, will make that nearly 8,000 feet and further plans, if they come to fruition, will stretch it to 10,000 feet.
Palatka gets a lot of NASCAR and — this year — Super Bowl traffic but, year ’round, “We get a lot of corporate traffic — tons and tons of executive jets from the smallest Lears to the largest Gulfstreams. There’s a lot of commerce — business and industry — right in the area that brings them here,” says Donna Franklin, the airport’s enthusiastic business operations supervisor.
Florida Department of Transportation funds for the new terminal building should be released in July with construction scheduled to start “before the end of this year,” according to Franklin. The new building is designed to withstand Category 5 hurricanes. A further FDOT grant will rehabilitate the existing, 1963 terminal building, she added, providing additional and much—needed rental office space.
Franklin has an uncommon approach to the airport’s business. “It’s not always that next almighty dollar that renders a business successful in the long run,” she says. “It’s customer relations and corporate interactions.”
For example, she says, when Eastern Aviation Fuels switched from BP to Shell products, the long-term relationship the Palatka Airport had with Eastern kept the distributor on the field, resulting in a new fuel farm and the addition of self-service pumps. Since then, “Palatka has become the new hot spot for quality cheap fuel,” she says. “We have become known as among the lowest, if not the lowest, location for 100LL and JetA fuels in our market.”
An event being planned for the Spring of 2008 or 2009 will showcase all that progress, Franklin says. “The Great Palatka Air Show, just in its infancy, is the first of its kind for Palatka and already is making tongues wag.”
By that time, Palatka may have become Florida’s commercial space port. The Florida SpacePort Authority is considering it as the location for its launch site, following recent meetings at which Franklin, Ball and members of the Palatka Airport Authority laid out a powerful presentation that put Palatka at the top of the short list. “It was a 10-minute presentation that stretched to four hours,” Franklin notes. A decision is expected soon.
The expected economic impact from a favorable decision is enormous, Franklin said. It’s an additional incentive for that 10,000-foot runway, as well, since the SpacePort’s plan is to launch sub-orbital — and someday orbital — space vehicles from a specially adapted Lockheed L-1011. “That’s a big bird,” Ball comments.
In the meantime, businesses on the field include airframe and engine major service operations, upholstery and composites shops, a paint shop — only an avionics shop is missing. Other than that, “it’s a full-service stop,” Franklin says.
As for the new T-hangars, Ball said: “If we build them we can fill them. T-hangars are a rare commodity everywhere, but particularly in northern Florida.” A five-plane corporate hangar is being discussed with one business customer, “and there are three or four others talking about locating their businesses here,” Franklin added.
FROM BACK IN THE DAY TO TOMORROW
The airport has an interesting history, but one that’s not unusual for Florida and other Southern states. Founded in 1938 on just 214 acres, the U.S. Navy acquired it in 1942, as World War II got under way, and expanded it substantially the next year. It was named Kay Larkin Field for Lt. Jasper Kennedy “Kay” Larkin, an Army Air Corps pilot instructor and Palatka native who had been killed early in the war.
In 1946, the War Assets Administration turned the airport back to the city.
From before World War II to the airport of today, Kay Larkin Field has been part of a local transportation system once dominated by river boats and still featuring barges that service a shoreline peppered with modern industry. Today the airport is the leader in that transportation system.
The city of Palatka wants to be Florida’s inland transportation hub, according to City Manager Allen Bush. The airport’s master plan supports that vision and, indeed, enhances it, he says.
“Terminal West,” Franklin replies, with a sparkle in her eye.
“Terminal West is a dream. It’s going to be the on-field commercial development for business, industry, commerce and trade. Infrastructure’s being placed right now. It’s several hundred acres of airport property that will be developed.”
Terminal West will include large corporate hangars, executive hangars, and probably connection by internal airport roads to the adjacent business and industrial parks.
“There’s no place to go but up,” Franklin concluded.