"A GENERAL AVIATION AIRPORT IS TRULY A REAL ESTATE development that has runways as an amenity,” declares Mike Willingham, executive director at Sebring Airport Authority. Since 1991, Willingham has presided over Florida’s Sebring Regional Airport’s (SEF) continued growth and expansion with his unique vision of “airport property as a platform for economic development.”
His forward-thinking has propelled the airport to the success it is seeing today. Sebring Regional Airport sits on a 2,000-acre business park, which employs nearly 500 people through the airport, fixed-based operators (FBOs) and other tenants. A portion of the old runway system is home to Sebring International Raceway, host of the Twelve Hours of Sebring, a world-renowned sports car endurance race held annually since 1952.
Adjacent to the airport is the Château Élan Hotel and Conference Center with trackside viewing of the raceway. SEF is also a Department of Commerce certified Foreign Trade Zone—FTZ No. 215, which increases the area’s global competitiveness.
These attributes, along with the area’s low cost of living and central Florida location, play a significant role in marketing and promoting the airport and its business park, attracting new commercial and tourist patrons.
In 1958 the Sebring City Council passed an ordinance establishing an airport advisory committee to make recommendations to the city relative to the operation, management and control of the Sebring Air Terminal (now Sebring Regional Airport).
The Sebring Airport Authority was formed in 1967 and is a dependent special district of the City of Sebring, Florida. Willingham says it’s important to note that the authority operates virtually autonomously with regard to its business operations and economic development. This structure allows for quick action on projects and streamlines business development efforts, says Willingham.
“The airport enjoys an excellent relationship with the city and the county,” he adds. “This sound working relationship with the Sebring Airport Authority Board improves my ability to bring about positive change for the airport and community.”
The airport is run by Executive Director Willingham and overseen by a board of directors that meets monthly. Willingham is one of the authority’s six employees who efficiently run SEF.
He says the “Yellow Page” test has always been employed when hiring additional staff. If a needed service can be found in the Yellow Pages, quite frequently, it can be delivered by the private sector more efficiently. This methodology also builds local support for the organization within the community.
An example is the operation of the airport-owned FBO. Volo Aviation provides turnkey management for the FBO. This streamlined methodology keeps the airport on budget while providing superior customer service. Additionally, airport staff are then afforded the time to focus on core responsibilities such as economic development.
Sebring is set apart
Willingham approaches the airport with a unique perspective to creating revenue streams. He’s an out-of-the-box thinker, and one that takes risks. Over the years, SEF management has taken risks that paid off, such as Sebring’s U.S. Sport Aviation Expo, now approaching its 11th year.
This four-day sport aircraft event held every January attracts aviation companies from around the world, garners fabulous press and brings in thousands of aviation enthusiasts. SEF is now known worldwide as host of the premier sport aviation event in the country. This expo has played a big part in attracting new airport tenants as well as bolstering the local economy.
SEF’s polished appearance through its website, events and other marketing efforts is what drives online traffic, airport visitors and overall business. “The airport invests in high-quality marketing materials, which is a key factor in drawing superior prospects to the table,” says Willingham. “The airport is diligent, creative and employs out-of-the box thinking.”
As testimony to that, in the past two years SEF has signed deals with several new tenants: Citra Pac, Tecnam USA, Paradise Aircraft of Brazil, FLG Teardowns, and Gulf Coast Supply and Manufacturing. In April 2015, Lockwood Aviation will expand into a new space with its builder assist program for the AirCam. Guaranteeing a smooth transition is another way SEF attracts and retains quality tenants. Willingham says airport personnel assist each new or expanding tenant with any needs they have, every step of the way.