Ford details quest for FAA’s final OK of Airglades

MOORE HAVEN — The two first speakers at the Glades County Economic Development Council’s 2019 annual dinner and meeting Oct. 10 warmed up the audience for keynote speaker Congressman Greg Steube with victory-lap speeches.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
Fred Ford speaks during the Glades County Economic Development Council’s annual dinner Thursday evening.

First up was Tracy Whirls, EDC executive director, who cited a list of new projects taking place. The night’s highlight for many, however, was the long-awaited happy announcement borne by Fred Ford, CEO of Airglades International Airport LLC.

Ms. Whirls remembered when he’d first come to town. “I met Fred Ford about 12 years ago when he was a member of the Hendry Glades Adult Leadership Class” — “I was a teenager at that time!” he shouted from his table — “Yes, we were all much younger then, I promise you,” she went on.

“I was asked to do a presentation to the leadership class on tourism and our plans for Main Street Moore Haven to redevelop the waterfront. Fred, of course, is an avid yachtsman and was one of the early adopters of our dream.”

After their second meeting, she had occasion to polish her skills of “tenacity and persistence” in getting back a file she’d given Mark Morton of Lykes Bros., with whom she’d met with Mr. Ford in his pursuit of investment partners for his Florida Fresh Cargo idea at the time. She finally got her file back, and said the tenacity and persistence she’d learned has been invaluable. “And that’s a trait that I share with my good friend Fred, so without further ado…”

Mr. Ford took the podium and told some of his patented stories about his early days in the airport business and how he came to have a dream of creating a huge new cargo airport at a former Royal Air Force WWII training base-cum-skydiving-center down the road toward Clewiston.

Ms. Whirls, he said, “missed a few points. Prior to this I was a Speedo model, and look at me now! Ten years later, I haven’t lost any of it!”

Mr. Ford complimented the phenomenal growth of Miami International Airport (MIA) into “one of the fastest-growing airports in the world.

“They do a remarkably good job given that most of that airport, in fact — the main terminal building — was built in 1967, and they just keep adding on and adding on and adding on. Very early in my career, I had an office in that main terminal right where the hotel shoeshine stand is, in 1969, so I’m well versed in how old and how effective Miami International is,” he said.

Turns out that even before MIA was built, an FAA friend once told him, officials knew it eventually would need a relief valve for its shipping even though “you can fit a lot of stuff in 3,000 acres.” Mr. Ford said he was told they’d been looking for one since the Eisenhower administration.

One was built near the Collier County line on Tamiami Trail but, stopped cold by environmental interests, it now is a drag racing park where drivers compete on its 13,000-foot former runway. After Hurricane Andrew, Homestead was the favored spot; it was rejected because of its bottlenecked location. Around when Hurricane Charley hit, Mr. Ford was starting to envision a reliever airport in Hendry County. The gold mine turned out to be the perishable fresh produce cargo industry, and he already had started building a bridge into it with his initiatives to court Florida produce and citrus growers. They created a combined operation that now moves tons of oranges and a multitude of vegetables.

He said nowhere in the world is there such a concentration of that industry as there is in South Florida. “JFK, the largest cargo airport on the East Coast, does just 10% of this type of business versus Miami … I said we need to keep this business in Florida,” Mr. Ford told the FAA.

He credited the faith in his idea shown by several people in the room, including Ms. Whirls, the Hendry County Board and particularly County Commissioner Karson Turner. “They took a big gamble in 2010 and gave me a little time to do my due diligence.”

On presenting his idea to the FAA on Aug. 10, 2010, he said he gave the right answer to its biggest question — whether Airglades was intended as a reliever or a competitor to MIA — and the FAA administrator gave the green light on the spot that very day.

“Nine years later, on Sept. 29 — the notice had been put in the Federal Register in August — and on that day the FAA administrator announced that ‘The Airglades International Airport project and its sale to a private developer by Hendry County has been fully approved, and you may — once you have your money and contracts in place — you may start construction.”

Look for the moving of dirt to begin in late March or early April 2020.

Chris Felker can be reached at cfelker@newszap.com.

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