Last Friday evening, while standing at the front of a packed ballroom, with microphone in hand, Mayor Gow Fields announced, “Aviation has reached a new high in Lakeland.”
When’s the last time you heard a mayor say something positive and hopeful about aviation? Wait! Before you reach too far back in your memory banks to come up with an example, there’s more.
Lites Leenhouts, the new president of Sun ‘n Fun, had only moments before vacated the exact same spot in front of the exact same crowd, after saying, “The only reason this is happening right now is because the city allowed it.”
Yep, there’s a love-fest coming on in Lakeland, Florida. And it’s happening right out in public, with plenty of attention being paid to it. Aviation is becoming a recognized part of the economy of central Florida, and it’s got enough oomph to it that even the non-aviation folks are starting to notice.
This most recent display of official mutual affection came about at the roll-out celebration for the Black Diamond Jet Team, formerly known as the Heavy Metal Jet Team, which has just relocated to Lakeland Linder Regional Airport. With seven jets in its inventory, a national reputation for putting on an outstanding aerial routine, and conducting themselves with a level of professionalism that would make a military team proud, the Black Diamond Jet Team is quite a get for this community.
So how did this big day come to be? Teamwork. It’s all coming together because of a mutual dedication to good old-fashioned teamwork.
Gene Conrad is the airport manager at Lakeland Linder. He’s young, ambitious, charismatic, and focuses like a laser on finding great opportunities that he can bring to his airport for the benefit of the community at large. He’s been successful, too. It’s not always easy. In fact, it’s never easy. But the outcome is worth the effort, so Gene and his crew battle away on a daily basis, making Lakeland Linder all it can be.
A year ago Conrad and his small crew brought Direct Air into Lakeland. A small air carrier that caters to secondary markets, Direct Air has sold in excess of 100,000 seats into and out of Lakeland since its arrival on the scene. And that level of traffic has resulted in residual advantages, like lots of rental cars being taken out of the lot each day by visitors, and plenty of meals being served in local restaurants to people who were hundreds of miles away the day before. Hotel stays, retail sales, and so many other aspects of the local economy are also feeling a positive effect thanks to the new influx of air travelers.
Teamwork isn’t just about the obvious players. There are far more entities in the game than might be obvious on first glance. That’s what’s so encouraging about this trend. Aviation’s impact on the local economy is pervasive, and it’s seeping into every nook and cranny of life here in Polk County. That includes the educational system.
John Small is the Senior Director of Workforce Education in Polk County. He is directly connected to the school system, and it might seem like a stretch that a man tasked with establishing educational opportunities for kids would get all excited about an aerobatic jet team coming to town. But that’s what teamwork is all about, focusing on the commonality of what’s available to us, rather than the differences that divide us.
“What a great lesson for kids,” says John with genuine enthusiasm. He talks animatedly about what it takes to do what these pilots and crews do professionally, with terms like “extreme discipline” peppering the points he makes. Small is thinking big, and thinking long term. How might that level of professionalism rub off on high school students, he wonders. “We’re looking for kids to do internships over there.”
As a motivational tool, each member of the Black Diamond Jet Team will be autographing the posters scattered around the ballroom that show the formation in flight. Those posters will then be hung in the Central Florida Aerospace Academy, where students will see the team hanging on their walls, and flying past their windows.
The team is on task, and that’s fantastic news all around. Sun ‘n Fun recognizes the benefits of having a good working relationship with the airport management team and city hall. The airport management team recognizes Sun ‘n Fun’s draw on companies and the public alike. And city hall has realized that the airport can do a whole lot more for the community than simply play host to an annual fly-in, even if that event does bring a staggering $64 million into the local economy each year (based on the latest economic impact study performed by the University of South Florida).
There’s an undeniably symbiotic relationship developing in Lakeland that is allowing aviation to become a real player in the economic development plans of the region. That’s great news for central Floridians who welcome the opportunity to climb up out of the economic doldrums that have been so pervasive in recent years.
But it’s great news for your community, too. Because aviation is omni-present in the world. If they can do it in Lakeland, you can do it in your community, too. All it takes it time, a sincere commitment to success, and teamwork.
You can do that. Really, you can.
Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport. He also is an owner and contributor to FlightMonkeys.com. You can reach Jamie at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com
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