STUART — A U.S. Customs facility could open at Witham Field in the fall of 2013 to clear international boaters and air travelers because state transportation officials expedited a $500,000 grant, Martin County officials said Tuesday.
The county commissioners voted 3-2 to accept the grant from the Florida Department of Transportation to help pay for the $800,000 building at the county-owned airport.
Martin County is expected to receive the grant in December instead of July 2012 because FDOT District 4 Secretary Jim Wolfe wanted to advance the Customs project, according to county records.
Construction on the Customs building, an aircraft ramp and parking lot could start in 2012 and be completed in 2013, Airport Manager George Stokus said. The start of construction depends on when the design is completed.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency also notified Stokus that Witham Field can charge a fee as a private entity for boaters and air travelers to clear Customs at the facility, according to county records. Customs would not collect any fees or be a part of the fee collection process.
Customs would collect all applicable fees and taxes, which would be separate from the fees charged by Martin County.
The commissioners and several speakers during Tuesday's meeting again debated whether the user fees collected from international boaters and air travelers would cover the operating costs of the Customs facility.
Several business leaders said the Customs facility would help local companies expand and attract new companies as well as encourage tourism.
"We are currently working with a number of international companies, including several headquarters operations, who are considering Martin County as a location," saidCrystal Stiles, co-director of the Business Development Board of Martin County. "These companies would utilize Witham Field as their gateway to the world. Having Customs in our community would help us secure these companies for Martin County."
Commissioner Patrick Hayes said he wanted to go forward with the Customs facility to provide opportunities for the business community.
"I'm happy that we are able to move up the time frame," he said.
Commissioners Ed Fielding and Sarah Heard, who dissented, again questioned the financial projections indicating the facility would generate enough fee income to pay for the staff, utilities and other expenses.
So did David Shore, president of the Witham Airport Action Majority, an airport watchdog group.
"My concern today is that we are moving forward on this facility and have not done an independent financial analysis on whether or not it is a viable project," Shore said. "There is absolutely no proof in the numbers that you've been given that this facility can and will support itself."
International boaters can register online with Customs and Border Protection and clear Customs for free by making a cell phone call, Heard said.
Commission Chairman Ed Ciampi said Martin County can rent out the building if the Customs facility cannot generate enough income to cover its operation expenses.
"My frustration is that every time this Customs facility comes before the board it should not turn into another opportunity for the opponents to some how sway a majority of the board," Ciampi said. "We've already had an up or down vote on this."
Customs facility financial details
Proposed User Fee Airport Customs and Border Protection International Arrivals Facility at Witham Field
Florida Department of Transportation: $400,000
Airport fuel flowage: $50,000
Airport leases: $350,000
How they voted
The Martin County Commission voted 3-2 to accept a grant of up to $500,000 from the Florida Department of Transportation for the proposed U.S. Customs facility planned for Witham Field.
Ed Ciampi: Yes
Ed Fielding: No
Patrick Hayes: Yes
Sarah Heard: No
Doug Smith: Yes