For the first time in SUN ’n FUN history, the fly-in opens not only debt free, but with more than $500,000 in the bank.
That’s the latest report from SUN ’n FUN President John “Lites” Leenhouts, who added that the fly-in also has $175,000 that it is building into an endowment fund.
“That means we will be able to continue to fund flight training, A&P and college scholarships,” he said Sunday before the show opened.Each year, SUN ’n FUN funds almost half a million in scholarships, as well as continues to build new facilities on its campus.
This year’s big achievement was the completion of the Lakeland Aero Club Hangar, which Leenhouts says is the “capping component” of the Aerospace Center for Excellence.
“We have the largest high school flying club in the world,” he noted proudly. “Our philosophy is that if we can capture their interest in middle school, we can provide a high school and college right here, as well as after school programs that provide an opportunity for them to stay engaged in aviation.”
The Aerospace Center for Excellence, which began with construction of the Central Florida Aerospace Academy high school on the campus a few years ago, has become an example that school districts around the country are eager to emulate.
Last year the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association held an Aviation High School Symposium at SUN ’n FUN, with representatives from 150 schools from around the country.
And while many of them wanted to duplicate what SUN ’n FUN has done, Leenhouts said SUN ’n FUN was also eager to hear what others are doing.
“My philosophy is copy us all you want and I will copy you,” he said. “It will make all of us much more robust.”
Much of what has occurred here has been due to the good works of James Ray, who provided the capital to build the high school, as well as other facilities on the campus.
It’s built on his philosophy — shared by so many others — that once you solo an airplane, it changes your life, Leenhouts said.
“The confidence you get, the skill set, is applicable to any way of life,” he said.
Ray, who will be on hand Wednesday morning for the dedication of the Lakeland Aero Club, also is being inducted into the Florida Aviation Hall of Fame this week.
Another sponsor recently came forward and offered to pay for an economic impact study from two professors at Florida Southern College. What they found is that SUN ’n FUN generates more than $137 million of economic growth to the region every year.
That’s about double previous estimates.
An evaluation completed in 2011 found about a $64 million economic impact, according to Leenhouts.
“I was anticipating that we would be somewhere in the $90 million range,” Leenhouts said. “I had no idea what we were really generating.”
The economic impact is fueled, obviously, by the more than 200,000 people who attend the fly-in annually — who spend money at local restaurants, hotels and stores — but also by the volunteers who spend up to half a year here, as well as the construction that is going on on the campus, as well as all the other year-round programs, such as the car shows, summer camps and more.
The study found that SUN ’n FUN brings in about 1,600 employees that rotate throughout the year, some who stay for just a week, while others stay for up to six months, Leenhouts explained.
The study’s findings are being used to “promote collaboration and support from the community to continue to grow our educational programs,” Leenhouts said. “We showed them that by us raising money for education, which improved their student lives and the literacy rate in Polk County, it also generated income for their city.”
Everybody wins, he added.
“In essence, we’ve got a lofty and admirable goal of repopulating the aerospace professional population and the side benefit is we create really good citizens and a better economy for everyone,” he concluded.