Community celebrates Airglades groundbreaking

(Caloosa Belle/Chris Felker) CLEWISTON — The celebrants joke with AIA’s Fred Ford about his backward hardhat before the shovels hit the dirt. He would rather have worn his fedora.

CLEWISTON — “Everybody here — this is not any B.S. — it took a lot of people to get where we are today,” declared Fred Ford in his speech before the Airglades International Airport CEO ceremoniously turned the first dirt Monday morning, March 2, at the site. This act, in concert with four other key people in its development also wielding golden shovels, marks the beginning of the conversion of the former Riddle Field into Airglades International Airport.

Over 100 people gathered to celebrate as Airglades International Airport LLC (or AIA) had its groundbreaking ceremony for the new $2.1 million, 4,000-square-foot U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facility. It is being built to handle the incoming perishable goods for which this airstrip will become an import hub, relieving Miami International Airport and expanding shipping logistics opportunities with a less expensive option. Representatives from AIA, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Hendry County attended, along with elected officials and local business leaders from all around the area, mingling with some of Mr. Ford’s aviation and logistics industry allies from South Florida and South America.

The new facility is made possible through partnership and coordination with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Hendry County. AIA officials and local leaders shared what this new facility means for the airport, the region and how it will affect future economic development in Hendry County and beyond.

The development of this facility will designate AIA as an official port of entry to the United States and create a major international, multimodal logistics complex with far-reaching economic impact, while generating hundreds of new jobs at the airport.

AIA manages the current Airglades General Aviation Airport and supported Hendry County in completing the Airport Investment Partnership Program application. Upon completion of the new airport facility, AIA will act as a purpose-built logistics hub for air cargo trade and handling between Latin America and the U.S.

Mr. Ford asked the audience to stand and “let out a big yell and cheer!” (He had warned them that his would be an interactive speech, so they complied.) With their rousing cheers filling the air, he said, “That’s for all the VIPs I’m supposed to recognize from the podium.”

He said he had a list of people to thank and hoped he wouldn’t forget anyone. “Today, I’m scared to death. I’m humbled. I’m in awe! I can’t believe that we’re all here today. And you’ll meet some people who have played a major role and we have to thank officially and sincerely and warmly, a few that I’d like to call out.”

Mr. Ford personally thanked many of the people who welcomed him to town over a decade ago when he started with his idea and the AIA project.

“I rolled into town in a pinstripe suit, wingtip shoes and a tie, sometime in 2008. I was not dressed appropriately for meeting the locals. And I was from Boston and I had an Irish accent, so three strikes against me when I walked into town,” he joked but seriously.

His sincere thanks were extended to all the county commissioners, the manager and engineering and public works department heads whom he worked with, United States Sugar Corporation, Hilliard Brothers of Florida and The Armellini Companies of Miami.

Mr. Ford called upon David and Stephen Armellini, and the latter was present. “He’s the big kahuna for a company called Armellini Express Lines. Without the Armellini family, we wouldn’t be here today,” said Mr. Ford.

He also specifically recognized several federal agency officials, including “one FAA guy that isn’t here but he is here in spirit,” someone he’d met over 40 years previously whom he told in 2008, “How many hundreds of millions of dollars have you guys spent trying to find an auxiliary airport for Miami? … Well, I think I found it.”

Diane Sabatino, former port director who is now the Florida regional director for the CBP, was thanked by name also. “One hundred percent of our business is perishable products coming from offshore. That means 100 percent of those products have to be inspected. By U.S. Customs, (the state Department of) Agriculture USDA, APIS, DEA, you name the agencies, they want to look at it,” he said, thanking the local officials for all their assistance in dealing with CBP.

He cited as well Derek Herbert, who is assistant director of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, another close partner in planning AIA.

There was a large contingent of CBP officers present, who were actually not there just for show but were distributing recruitment materials, too, in a tangible sign of the new jobs coming to the Lake Okeechobee region.

Mr. Ford singled out Hernan Calindo, AIA vice president for business development; Marilyn DeVoe, vice president of operations; and Lillie Rodriguez. “Her official title, I think, is assistant airport director … but she’s already moved my chair out of the office!” he said jokingly, but hinted that he is probably through building airports (AIA is his fourth).

He also thanked Hendry County Attorney Mark Lapp and “Jennifer Davis, wonderful administrator for Hendry County,” who he said handled all relations with the Florida Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration concerning the airport since the county still owns the former training field for Royal Air Force pilots in World War II.

Asked after the event whether he thought the new-job wave in the area will happen as a trickle or a flood, Mr. Ford said he thought it best to say only that he was comfortable promising, within the first year of operation, there would be 1,000 people working at the site.

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

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