You might say Gene Conrad is in the family business.
The new director of Lakeland-Linder Regional Airport (LAL), home to this week’s Sun ‘n Fun Fly-In, was born in Oshkosh, where his father was director of the airport. Conrad grew up on airports, as his dad took over management positions at Huntsville International Airport (HSV) in Alabama and Dayton International Airport (DAY) in Ohio.
So when the opportunity to become LAL’s director came up, Conrad didn’t think twice.
“This is a unique opportunity,” he said. “I have a little boy who is 2-1/2, and I’d like him to grow up like I grew up.”
Of course, Conrad didn’t get the job based on his father’s resume. He started his career at Port Columbus International Airport (CMH) in Ohio, then worked at Dayton International Airport (DAY), and most recently worked at Branson Airport (BBG) in Missouri, the first privately developed and operated commercial service airport in the nation. “Branson was an awesome experience,” he said.
Conrad, 34, has no doubt that his experience at LAL will be just as awesome.
“This airport is ripe for growth,” he says enthusiastically. “There is tons of infrastructure and tons of business activity. There is a tremendous amount of opportunity here.”
And Conrad is not shy about telling anyone who will listen — from pilots to the FAA administrator to potential new tenants — about those opportunities.
“We’re aggressive,” he says. “We’re going to do our due diligence and identify these opportunities. We’re not going to wait for them to come to us.”
Providing a lot of those opportunities is Sun ‘n Fun. Having an international event like Sun ‘n Fun every year is a “huge deal,” he said. “Any airport would love to have an event like this.”
And any airport director would love to have the FAA administrator visit his airport, which is what will happen this week as FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt will be attending this year’s show for a few days. “This will give us face time with the administrator,” Conrad said. “He’s a pilot with great knowledge of GA, so we’re looking forward to meeting with him and giving him a personal tour of our facilities. This is a great opportunity.”
The airport, which is now going through its master plan update, just received a $2.4 million FAA grant, which will be used for taxiway improvements designed to alleviate complex geometric intersections and improve the safety of taxiing aircraft at the airport.
“Currently the taxiway coming out of the terminal area steers you into a convoluted spot,” Conrad explains. “This has been identified as a ‘hot spot’ with a potential for runway incursions. These improvements will correct that.”
It also will provide for the straightening of another taxiway coming out of the T-hangar area. “If you are not paying attention, the current layout allows for an aircraft or vehicle to go right across the runway without realizing it,” he said.
Construction is scheduled to begin this summer with a completion date of spring 2011.
Conrad notes that not only the FAA, but the Florida Department of Transportation, support LAL and share his vision of “what the possibilities are.” “There’s the possibility of commercial service at some point,” Conrad said, then is quick to add, “But GA will always be at our core. If we do bring commercial service here, we can blend it in so it mixes without interruption to our GA activities.”
Of course, for one week every year, the prime activity at LAL is Sun ‘n Fun. Hundreds of thousands of people descend on the airport during the week, coming here from not only every state in the union, but from countries around the world.
Well before opening day, LAL employees are ready for the big event. “We’re the support role,” Conrad says. “We make sure everything is safe, then we stay out of the way.” That’s because the Sun ‘n Fun staff and volunteers — who have 36 years experience at running the fly-in — do a “great job,” Conrad says. “Sun ‘n Fun is an awesome partner,” he says.
The fly-in is also a great way to show off the airport, he admits. “This is a showcase for the airport as well,” Conrad says. That’s why earlier this year, airport crews painted the hangars on the north side of the airport so they now match the colors of the terminal. A new restaurant, Earhart’s Runway Grill, opened just days before the fly-in (see story below) and the airport is preparing to kick off a new marketing campaign.
It’s theme? “We’re here the rest of the year,” Conrad says. “We have more than 150 tenants on the airport and there is so much aviation activity occurring here all year.”
The airport’s business community is strong, boasting long-time businesses like Gulf Coast Avionics — which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year — to the newest tenant, Okeechobee Painting Center, which just moved from the Okeechobee Airport (OBE).
“We have 1 million square feet of facilities,” Conrad says. “About 65% is leased and we’re working hard to get that other 35% leased.”
Conrad notes that LAL is a “one-stop shop,” offering a broad array of businesses that cater to all GA pilots, whether they fly a 172 or a G4. Conrad also hopes to enlist the help of those pilots to help LAL thrive.
“When they come here, we ask that they look around and then spread the word,” he said. “Pilots are our biggest marketing arm. We want them to come in and have a great experience.
For more information: LakelandAirport.com.