When most people look at an airport they see planes, runways, taxiways and fuel. When Mike Willingham looks at an airport, he sees a real estate opportunity.
On Aug. 1, Willingham will have been executive director of the Sebring Airport Authority for 25 years. Willingham, 64, is also a pilot with an additional three years of experience in Fixed Base Operations at the airport, but it is his out-of-the-box thinking and business acumen that have made his tenure at the Sebring Regional Airport so successful.
Besides its obvious role as a flight center, the property under Willingham is now a 2,000-acre business park hosting 44 tenants and is part of a Foreign Trade Zone, also known as a Free Tax Zone, spanning six counties.
Hang a left turn off of U.S. 98, pass the Humane Society of Highlands County and you’ll start to see the Sebring Regional Airport “shopping mall.
The famous race track is a tenant, along with aviation companies like Tecnam Aircraft, who assembles, sells and distributes piston-powered aircraft across the Americas. Lockwood is here, constructing its Aircam, a revolutionary craft originally designed for National Geographic. The location is also a military refueling station.
But the airport isn’t all about planes. Other tenants include Genpak, a plastics manufacturer; E-stone, an Italian granite products company; and the newest tenant, CitraPac, the creator of “fruit pearls,” a kid-friendly, no-sugar-added frozen citrus product.
Willingham said he came into the role with an eye to “running the business and delivering value to the community.” That boils down to making decisions that pay the bills while also boosting economic development and job creation, and Willingham made it a point to foster good relationships with important community players like elected officials and the CRA.
“That has paid dividends,” he said.