U.S. Customs Facility Is Coming To Witham Field, Thanks In Large Part To The Local Community
The fast-gathering storm clouds threatened to frighten away most invitees. For an outdoor meeting set at 9 a.m. on a Wednesday in August, it would certainly be forgiven if most folks opted not to risk starting their workdays soaked.
After all, such governmental events—in this case a groundbreaking for a new Martin County facility—typically attracted little more than the obligatory attendees: elected officials, county department heads, private-sector professionals on the project, chamber executives and maybe a couple reporters.
Yet, as the steady stream of arriving cars attested, it would take more than fear of rain to dissuade this crowd. Overflowing well beyond the borders of the event tent, the multitude soon swelled to more than 200 people. News cameras from every local TV station positioned to cover dignitaries that included county and city officials as well as Congressman Brian Mast. Moments after the speeches and dirt-turning ceremonies finalized and the crowd dispersed, rain fell.
The long and arduous odyssey to bring a customs facility to Witham Field in Stuart had finally achieved perfect timing.
“It’s extremely exciting,” says Butch Bayley, owner of Sailfish Marina and a founding member of the Martin Marine Aviation Alliance—a group of marine and aviation businesses that organized to support passage of the facility. “After all the work it took to get us here—all the ups and downs at the county level—it’s pretty amazing that this day has finally arrived.”
The Witham customs effort endured multiple near misses, false starts and even a stunning setback in 2015 when the former Martin County Commission, which tended to treat business proposals with skepticism, revoked its previous approval. Demoralized but not defeated, supporters made customs a galvanizing issue in the following year’s county commission elections, ushering into office the pro-business majority of commissioners Doug Smith, Ed Ciampi and Harold Jenkins, who granted customs final approval in December 2016.
When the 3,210-square-foot, $1.7 million facility, which includes marine-trailer accessible road access, celebrates its grand opening in May, it will aim to accommodate locals and visitors traveling by boat or plane. Arrivals from the Bahamas or other international ports of call can enjoy the convenience of clearing customs in Stuart for a relatively low-cost user fee, avoiding the travel-related expenses and delays associated with clearing at the next-nearest facilities in Fort Pierce or West Palm.
“We’re very pleased to see this come online,” says Dan Capen, president of Stuart Jet Center and founder of the Martin Marine Aviation Alliance. “The boating community and aviation industry have always recognized that the convenience of a Witham customs office would appeal to a lot of locals. Even still, we were really encouraged at the tremendous outpouring of public support, which has hung in there all these years.”
DATING BACK DECADES
Likely no one affiliated with the effort to bring customs to Martin County goes back as far as Gary Guertin.
“The whole thought of having a customs facility really kind of solidified in the later ’90s, early 2000s,” he says.
Now co-publisher of the Treasure Coast and Bahamas editions of Coastal Angler Magazine, Guertin worked as general manager of Pirate’s Cove Marina in Stuart from 1993 to 2005. That’s when he first explored the benefits of a customs facility in Martin County.
“Like any other marina resort operator, you’re always looking for potential business,” he says. “We’re very, very close to the Bahamas. Many, many boats, depending on the time of year, migrated to the Bahamas. I wondered, why shouldn’t there be a customs clearing facility in Stuart—especially since we’re located at the east end of the Okeechobee Waterway?”
In addition to appealing to boaters traveling the Okeechobee Waterway—the only channel available to cross the state entirely by boat—to reach the open seas, Guertin knew many Martin County boaters regularly visited the Bahamas. To help further strengthen those ties, he got involved with various efforts promoting tourism to the Bahamas.
“This facility was conceived to serve the marine industries,” Guertin says.
MAKES PLANE SENSE
Aviators also recognized the value. Every operation, which includes takeoffs and landings, moves an aircraft closer to conducting another mandatory maintenance requirement. Whether the hobbyist owner of twin-engine Piper or the corporate owner of Gulfstream 6, the cost of jet fuel commands budgeting. Such realities make direct flights as preferable in private plane travel as they are in commercial.
ENTER WITHAM FIELD
Originating in the 1930s as a grass landing strip, Witham Field, established as Stuart Airport, got started with land donations to the county from private property owners eager to aid the United States during World War II. Thanks to a county lease, the Navy took over to conduct aircraft training operations.
Today, Witham Field—equipped with three runways to accommodate most general aviation aircraft—is home to two fixed-base operators, the national chain Atlantic Aviation and the locally owned and operated Stuart Jet Center. Primarily providers of jet fuel and concierge services, both FBOs anchor the other 30 Witham businesses. According to the Florida Department of Transportation, Witham Field is responsible for producing 2,300 jobs and more than $615 million annually in direct and indirect economic impacts.
FEE FOR SERVICE, CONVENIENCE
In 2007, Mike Moon, then airport director of Witham Field, sent a letter to U.S. Customs and Border Protection expressing interest in establishing a facility. In September 2010, a pro-business Martin County Commission approved an updated Airport Business Plan that recommended customs. Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott, in a move to enhance security measures, relegated customs facilities to airports, enabling general aviation airports to provide clearing services—a legal requirement—for a fee.
Proponents reasoned that the fees—scaled on the lower side for boaters and trending upward according to aircraft type—would offset operational costs of the facility.
BUSINESS, POLITICAL SUPPORT EMERGES
Early supporters included the Economic Council of Martin County, Marine Industries Association of the Treasure Coast, Stuart/Martin County Chamber of Commerce, Jensen Beach Chamber of Commerce, and the Stuart City Commission.
“From my years working in aviation, I understood the value the airport plays as a reliable generator of economic activity,” says Stuart Mayor Troy McDonald, who worked for Galaxy Aviation. “Small businesses always need help, but that was especially true when we first passed this resolution in 2011. When people have the convenience of clearing customs in Stuart, there’s a higher likelihood of them visiting shops in Stuart, going out for lunch or dinner in Stuart, and supporting our small businesses.”
GRANT AND APPROVAL IN HAND
Support hinged on key economic points. Construction costs would be derived from the Airport Enterprise Fund, which is comprised of taxes generated from jet fuel sales and airport lease agreements, to ensure none was derived from local property taxes. Finally, bolstered by a grant from the Florida Department of Transportation to cover half the construction costs, the county commission gave the facility a green light in 2011.
Witham would soon have the first fee-based customs facility in Florida.
“It was great because it would now service the aviation community in addition to the marine industries,” Guertin says. “Witham Field is within seven to 10 minutes of 90 percent of the slips in Martin County, so it’s a great central location.”
POLITICAL WINDS SHIFT
Before construction could begin, the political pendulum swung in a different direction, ushering in a new county commission majority. Suddenly, uncompleted projects previously approved by the business-friendly commission would likely face (in the words of the local newspaper) a “re-evaluation.” For customs, especially, this prediction proved spot-on.
In typical Martin County fashion, the ensuing debate engendered passionate perspectives on both sides of the aisle. Some opponents expressed concerns about increases in air traffic. Estimating a nominal increase, proponents countered that after clearing customs in other counties, locally owned aircraft returned to hangars at Witham.
“I personally don’t think it’s going to increase air traffic,” says Pat Martin, co-founder of the pro-business, conservation-minded organization Preserve Martin County that backed customs. “You have people first flying into West Palm or Fort Pierce to clear customs and get what they need, and then they fly the plane back up here. What happens is they get their services down there.”
OPPONENTS: BAD OPTION FOR BOATERS
Another objection concerned the Local Boater Option (LBO) program. Administered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, program participants register their names and vessels with authorities ahead of time. When returning to the region, he or she could call ahead, report their arrival and—at the officer’s discretion—forgo clearing in person. The argument appeared to negate the appeal to mariners, but it didn’t anticipate boat passengers who’ve never signed up for the program.
“A typical trip to the Bahamas means inviting friends who usually aren’t in the LBO,” Bayley says. “In that case, everyone onboard must report to customs. As boat captains, we’re held responsible for our passengers to clear or we face hefty fines.”
AS DELAYS GROW, SO DO SUPPORTERS
The back and forth raged for the next three years, during which customs would appear before the county commission for seven different votes. Despite the dragged-out process, the customs support base expanded. Hundreds gathered for each meeting. Nearly 3,000 signed a petition of support.
Along with Preserve Martin County, additional endorsing organizations included the Martin County Taxpayers Association, Stuart Main Street, Downtown Business Association of Stuart, Indiantown Chamber, Hobe Sound Chamber, the Young Professionals and the REALTORS association.
“We viewed customs as an important county amenity that benefits not just people who have planes but the much larger segment of the local public that loves boating, fishing and going to the Bahamas,” says H.B. Warren, president of the Martin County REALTORS of the Treasure Coast. “Generally speaking, it is smart government policy to create reasonable conveniences for the public good, as it is those services and amenities that strengthen property values.”
Elected to the county commission on a campaign that was highly critical of her business-friendly predecessor, Anne Scott was the vital swing vote. She zeroed in on costs of construction and operational sustainability. So, a grant was obtained to cover 80 percent of the construction fees. To address performance, several marina owners and aviation businesses formed the Martin Marine Aviation Alliance, pledging to contribute annual funding for three years to help offset any shortfalls.
“People all want to form an alliance,” says Mitch Milesi of SunDance Marine in Jensen Beach. “Funding is an entirely different thing.”
This move finally clinched approval. But when construction bids for the then-projected $1.6 million facility returned $200,000 higher than projected, Scott withdrew support, refusing to use $50,000 from airport enterprise funds to gain a state grant to cover the cost.
In a last-ditch effort, the chambers, marine industries and REALTORS took out a newspaper ad urging reconsideration of the denial. More than 75 citizens showed up at the following commission meeting urging the same—to no avail.
“It was a dead deal,” Martin remembers.
The 2016 elections offered a flicker of hope, says Scott Watson, owner of the Indiantown Marina and member of the Martin Marine Aviation Alliance.
“We figured that sooner or later, the political winds would be blowing in the right direction and that’s what would be necessary to customs being built,” Watson says.
In August 2016, Jenkins, a latecomer to the race, defeated Scott in a 20-point landslide.
“I’ve experienced the inconvenience of having to utilize other customs facilities, whether it be in Fort Pierce or Riviera Beach,” Jenkins says. “I understood the benefits from a personal perspective. But with all the marine interests that we have in Martin County, plus the aviation, plus the small businesses that will benefit, it was a necessary amenity that we make available to the citizens.
Jenkins joined Ed Ciampi, who’d served on the county commission previously, and Doug Smith, a staunch advocate for customs throughout the effort who was re-elected to his fifth straight term. At their first meeting together, Smith wasted no time motioning to revive customs, putting the project back on track for its forthcoming May grand opening.
“Many people in Martin County really came together and stayed focused on this for a long time,” Smith says. “That was great to see, especially because over a long period of time, people can get discouraged. But one thing about this: You never, never give up. If it’s a good project, it will happen.”