Drew Steketee was president of BE A PILOT, senior vp-communications for AOPA and executive director of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel. He also headed PR and media relations for Beech, GAMA and the Airport Operators Council International.
How many times do you hear of local government backing General Aviation? Or using GA to boost city renewal and business development? Not much these days, unless you’re around Tavares, Fla.
Tavares (seat of Lake County, named for a 19th Century Portuguese local) is often eclipsed by nearby Mt. Dora, Orlando’s artsy-craftsy weekend getaway 35 miles northwest of MCO. But Tavares offers wide-open Lake Dora access while much tonier Mt. Dora’s immediate downtown lakefront is tied up with expensive homes, the historic Lakeside Inn, and Mt. Dora Yacht Club. A knowledgeable Mt. Dora local recently complained that Tavares now hosts some of Mt. Dora’s longtime tourism assets, such as its blockbuster annual antique boat show. Yes, something is up!
That something is Tavares’ $8.4 million makeover and re-branding as “America’s Seaplane City.” Included are a refreshed Wooton Park with waterfront walks, performance venue, aviation-themed kiddy splash park (which has already garnered 21,000 admissions at $2 each), 88-slip marina and seaplane base. And it’s all lined by popular waterfront restaurants and watering holes. The seaplane base office and Ship’s Store is an “Old Florida style” reproduction of a former architectural landmark complete with generous porch and rocking chairs for “jus’ hangin’ out.”
The vision for this started with former Mayor Nancy Clutts and a multi-year “citizen’s conversation” on what to do about Tavares’ faded, “post-citrus” economy. As new economic development director, former county manager Bill Neron, helped see the process through, but credits new city manager John Drury with the seaplane base idea. Both Drury and Neron have previous airport management or airport authority experience. Neron praises all involved. “We’ve got quite a team here at City Hall.”
Critics (one Orlando TV station especially) groaned about the project’s three-year development and $7.3 million bond issue, but the payoff is at hand.
“The result has been incredible from a business perspective,” Drury told Florida Trend. Some 25 new businesses — including nine restaurants — have sprung up in a city whose largest employer was county government. (A pioneering one-year impact fee waiver for new businesses helped.) Among them: Progressive Aerodyne, which relocated its SeaRey seaplane kit factory and Builder’s Assist Center from Orlando to nearby Lake Idamere.
Moreover, the downtown seaplane base logged 700 landings in its first six months; skeptics had predicted 10 a month. Aside from a perfect location amid 1,800 lakes in aptly named Lake County, FA1 offers waterside 100LL, worth its weight in gold to floatplane pilots. Ethanol-free mogas attracts antique boat owners and Rotax-powered LSAs on floats. Besides, it’s a perfect splash-in for some funky dining at the Lucky Dog Gallery and Cafe or just an appreciative audience from local watering holes like O’Keefe’s Irish Pub.
It’s not all for show, however. In June 2010, the city contracted with Jones Brothers Air and Seaplane Adventures for sightseeing flights and seaplane instruction. Responding were business partners Eric Weaver and Ricci (“Ritchie”) Rowe, who have assembled an impressive offering of aircraft and services.
Rowe himself is an interesting story: He’s an Orlando-based Southwest Airlines captain, a longtime company veteran. His bio reports that his first airplane ride was with family friend Tommy Bartlett of Wisconsin Dells ski show fame. Turned out Rowe would later be one of those famed trick water skiers amid an interesting career in Canadian bush flying. Weaver and other pilots are also impressively skilled and experienced.
Along with friends, staff instructors and Rowe family members, Rowe and Weaver lead a happy group working hard to succeed. By the way, there’s not a “Jones Brother” on the place. Just a trade name — it makes for a nice logo and T-shirt.
Star of the Jones Brothers’ fleet is a rare Republic Seabee “Twin Bee” for multi-engine instruction. They are hard to find these days; Rowe thinks theirs may be one of the last in commercial service. Weaver promotes the Bee for MES ratings, MEI ratings, and perhaps the last ticket for some consummate aviator’s “complete ATP” (as he calls it), the one with ALL the initials, including those ending in “S.”
For a sample of just how exotic and historic this beautifully restored twin is, check out MESRating.com. There, the Jones Brothers generously allow you PDFs of their Twin Bee study guide and Bee flight manual. You’ll be fascinated by all the hydraulics and unique handling quirks of an old taildragger seaplane twin from a bygone era. (The Twin Bee was an early 1960s modification of the post-World War II Republic Seabee single. It’s said only 27 were converted.)
Jones Brothers estimates an MES rating will take four to nine hours at $475 an hour. Because training time varies so much with pilot experience, package prices are not offered. The school requires an ASES rating before pursuing the multi-engine sea course. Considering the skills to be mastered and the costs involved, this makes sense even though it’s not an FAA requirement.
Those not needing commercial- or ATP-level training in multi-engine sea operations would still enjoy mastering one of Jones Brothers’ singles. The C-180s on floats are nice, but I was captivated by the newest addition: A freshly restored PA-12 Piper Super Cruiser on floats. Recall that PA-12s are roomy, well-powered and just not that easy to find these days — on wheels or floats. It’s a jewel I intend to try out.
Aside from training, which includes splash-in lunch breaks at outlying waterfront eateries, Jones Brothers flies attractively priced sightseeing jaunts. The Harris Chain of Lakes offers a variety of large inland water linking quaint towns and interesting scenery. There’s talk of future charters to the Keys. Jones Brothers’ challenge now will be to attract tourists willing to forgo Disney, Universal and other customary vacation spots. They do a nice initial job of it at JonesAirAndSea.com.
The city, too, has big ideas, with 17 annual events, including concerts in a new Wooton Park pavilion. So far, the biggest event was “Planes, Trains and BBQ” that drew 9,500 visitors and 35 to 50 seaplanes last year. (The unusual combo arises from development director Neron’s status as a “Certified Master BBQ Judge” in the Florida BBQ Association.) The “Trains” part is a tourist railroad that runs from nearby Eustis, to a quaint new station on the Tavares waterfront. The train, too, used to be a Mt. Dora attraction but track work rerouted it. It’s temporarily sidelined again pending a new operator. Other events range from prestigious fishing tournaments to boat and jet ski races.
Open waterfront, music, seaplanes, food and drink? Yes! Tavares is placing a bet that’s rare in this Great Recession — that government economic development can combine General Aviation with natural geographic advantages to reawaken a town.
“Our ‘America’s Seaplane City’ brand has just taken off,” says Neron. “The community has really embraced it. We live the brand.”
The next “Planes, Trains and BBQ” event is April 2, right at the end of Lakeland’s Sun ’n Fun just an hour away (even closer from Sun ’n Fun’s Seaplane Splash-In in Polk City.)
If you can’t make it, Jones Brothers will have seaplanes for your inspection at the Sun ’n Fun Splash-In at Fantasy of Flight. Or try Tavares’ Seaplane Fly-In on April 16.
For more information: Tavares.org
© Drew Steketee 2011