Sunday, Oct 26, 2014
Local News

Airport strives to bring in new jobs and keep existing ones


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SEBRING - Seventeen years ago, Charlie Samuels worked for a manufacturer called Lesco at Sebring Regional Airport.

But when the company moved its plant to Ohio, Samuels relocated with it. Now he's back working in the same airport building where Lesco once operated. But, he's employed by Gulf Coast Supply & Manufacturing, the newest industry to relocate to the airport.

Mike Willingham, executive director of the airport, said Monday that besides Gulf Coast relocating, during recent months, one has company expanded, the airport has retained one business that was considering moving and they are working on projects aimed at attracting more jobs.

He has reason to hope, he said, that during the next several months the airport will be making as many as two major announcements about new jobs that will offer salaries above minimum wage. He couldn't divulge any specifics and added no agreements have been completed.

To attract new industry, Willingham said the airport can make use of state incentives, and those include tax incentives.

One project that could serve as an incentive for new industry is a planned 2,000- foot extension of the runway, he said.

With the Federal Aviation Administration recently approving it, the airport expects to begin designing the runway later this summer.

Willingham said the runway extension will allow larger planes to land at the airport.

Those could include cargo planes, such as those used by FedEx, he said, and that could result in someone wanting to open a maintenance facility for larger aircraft.

Recently, Willingham said, such a maintenance business wanted to relocate to Sebring from an airport in the Miami area, but couldn't wait until the runway extension was complete.

"There is a demand, but without the infrastructure, most companies don't have two years to wait while you build it," he said.

The airport also received a matching grant totaling $100,000 to refurbish its control tower, built during the World War II era.

The airport also tries to help retain existing businesses or assist them with expansion, he said.

Metro Aviation, which operates helicopters for Aeromed, which is owned by Tampa General Hospital, has chosen to do maintenance of all its helicopters statewide in Sebring. The airport also was able to retain Chem Nut, an agricultural supply business, Willingham said.

The company needed a larger space and the airport found that for them, he said.

Currently, Willingham said, the airport has leased most or all of the existing buildings at the airport. Eventually, the airport may add a building, he said.

Willingham has been especially happy with the addition of Gulf Coast Supply and Manufacturing, which builds metal roofs.

Jerry Lockette, vice president of finance, said Gulf Coast sells most of its roof to roofing contractors.

Currently, the company has nine employees in Sebring and one more will come soon after being trained in the company's original location in Horseshoe Beach.

The company has hired one to two employees per months and "we're hoping this is going to be a continuing process over the next several months," said Jonathan Sherrill, president of Gulf Coast.

Workers start out making $10 to $12 per hour and drivers can earn $15 to $20 an hour, Lockette said.

Some of the workers came from the company's Horseshoe Beach and Stuart locations. But company officials indicate the bulk of future hirings will be local.

Samuels, one of the locally hired employees, probably didn't expect to return to work in the same building he left 17 years ago.

He said that recently when Lesco decided to move to Tenneseee, he chose to come home to Sebring.

Upon moving here, he said, he went to CareerSource Heartland to try to find help in getting a job.

As he was leaving, he said, "she (an employee at CareerSource) called me back and said, 'Here's a place you might be interested in."'

And that turned out to be Gulf Coast, he said.

jmeisel@highlandstoday.com

(863) 386-5834

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