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The airport's beginnings date back to early 1939 when government and business leaders from Sarasota and Manatee counties agreed to construct an airport together, designed to serve the aviation needs of the two-county area. A 620-acre site was selected on the Sarasota-Manatee County line through a Federal WPA-CCA Grant. In May 1941, resolutions were passed creating the Sarasota Manatee Joint Airport Authority made up of one representative each from Sarasota County, Manatee County, the City of Sarasota and the City of Bradenton. A resolution also established the name of the new facility as the Sarasota Bradenton Airport. Aviation facilities were completed by early 1942 at a cost of nearly one million dollars. The Authority leased the land to the Army Air Corps later in 1942 as a fighter pilot training base during World War II. During the war, the federal government spent several million dollars in improvements at Sarasota Bradenton Airport and added another 250 acres to airport land. By late 1947, transfer of land and facilities back to the Airport Authority was completed.
Airport facilities began deteriorating rapidly during the early post-war years and the Authority recognized it could not properly operate the airfield under existing laws. In 1955, the Florida Legislature passed the Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority Act. This act gave Authority Members power to: maintain and improve the facilities as necessary; adopt bylaws, policies, and procedures to operate the airport; accept grants from any government entity or private agency or individual; sell bonds for airport purposes; and, make and enforce Airport Zoning Regulations. Following the adoption of the act, the Authority Members undertook several ambitious programs, including the opening of a new terminal building in 1959. Other improvements included parallel taxiway and runway overlay construction in 1963, and a runway extension (to 7,001') in the early 1970's. In 2002, the main runway was extended to 9,500 feet.
Although commercial airline service began as early as 1940 at Sarasota Bradenton Airport, it was not until 1965 that jet service was first provided to the area by National Airlines. Eastern Airlines began commercial service in 1961. General aviation service first appeared at the airport in the 1950's.
In 1970, the voters of Sarasota and Manatee counties opted for an elected - rather than appointed - Airport Authority, and enabling state legislation was adopted in 1972. Two Authority Members had to live in and represent Sarasota County and two were to live in Manatee County. No longer did the Members have to be previously elected officials of the surrounding local jurisdictions. In 1990, the state legislature added four new members (two from each county) to the Authority. In 2000, the voters of Sarasota and Manatee counties approved legislation that changed the Airport Authority selection process from public election of an eight-member commission to a six-member commission appointed by the Governor.
In the 1970s, airfield improvements continued with radar detection equipment, other buildings including shade hangars, a new safety/security building, and a new entrance from U.S. 301. Additional terminal facilities were built in 1979 and commuter facility added in 1983. By the mid-1980's, the Airport Authority owned over 1,100 acres.
The word "International" was added to the airport name in November 1992 when the U.S. Customs Service agreed to give "Port Of Entry" status to the airport. This status is on a "user" basis where the Airport Authority pays for the customs agent, equipment needed and work area.
Today, the Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority operates as a Florida independent special district pursuant to Florida Law 2003-309 (as amended by Florida Laws 2004-401, 2006-361, 2010-262 and 2015-185), as well as its duly adopted by-laws, and Florida Statutes Chapter 189, the Uniform Special District Accountability Act.
Most of the airport property is in Manatee County, including about half of Airside B, a large portion of the runways and taxiways, the three fixed base operators and lands leased to businesses and other organizations. The major portion of the long-term parking lot out to University Parkway is in the City of Sarasota. Airport property acreage is approximately 1,100.
Downtown Sarasota is located six miles south of the airport and downtown Bradenton is ten miles north.
The airport is operated by the Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority under a certificate issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which complies with Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) 139. It is a Instrument Flight Rule (IFR) facility providing the following services: commercial air carrier and general aviation facilities; fuel; FAA operated control tower; ARTS III radar; and related navigational aids. The FAA control tower (radio terminology "Sarasota Tower") is located on the westside of the airfield near the runways intersection. The airport has two crossing asphalt surfaced runways, 4/22 (NE/SW) and 14/32 (SE/NW). Both runways were built in the early 1940's. Runway 4/22 is 5,004 feet long; it was resurfaced in1961, strengthened in 1969, completely rehabilitated in 1995 and 2009, and is used almost exclusively by general aviation aircraft. Runway 14/32 was extended in 1969 to 7,003 feet, rehabilitated in 1989/90; extended again in 2001 to its present length of 9,500 feet, rehabilitated again in 2006 and it is used by commercial jets and other aircraft.
The current terminal opened to travelers on October 29, 1989, after an open house celebration attended by thousands the day before. The approximately 240,000 square feet of interior space is about four times the size of the previous passenger facilities. It is located south of runways 4/22 and 14/32.
The terminal project, including the new building, parking lot area, ramp space, and landscaping, took nearly ten years to apply for and be approved by the local governments, regional planning councils, and the State of Florida. Bonds totaling $72.8 million were issued to pay for it. Nearly $12 million in bonds were redeemed leaving $61 million outstanding. The construction cost was approximately $58 million. Construction began in 1987 and was completed in 1990.
Public parking spaces total 1,450 at the terminal. Short-term lot spaces (incl. 14 disabled permit spaces), and long-term spaces total 816 (incl. 30 disabled permit spaces). Car rental companies use another 257 spaces adjacent to the west end of the short term lot, and 300 employee spaces are located in a separate lot west of the terminal. Access to the employee lot is controlled through hang tag parking permits issued semi-annually to those authorized to park there and the airport's ID badge security system.
In August 1992, the connector road located on the southeast side of the airfield, leading to I-75 and University Parkway to the airport entrance, was completed by Sarasota County. This project was part of the new terminal complex plan and the Authority contributed land and $700,000 to its construction.
In March 1993, the perimeter road project located inside the airfield fence on airport property was completed. It is six miles long and twelve feet wide; its approximate cost was $2 million. It provides easy access for authorized vehicles needing to get from one place to another on the airfield, especially in the case of an emergency.
General aviation facilities are located northwest and northeast of the runway intersection. Dolphin Aviation and Retrix Aerodrome Center are tenants at the airport and provide hangars, maintenance, flight instruction, rentals and charters and repair and fueling for their private aviation customers. FBO's (Fixed Base Operators) operate according to Authority policy, which sets certain standards on operations. Additional FBO's can operate at the airport, given available land and facilities, and subject to financial review. Moreover, federal grant assurances prohibit airports from discriminating against additional business development such as new FBO service.