Joe Lopano flew in from Dallas to set Tampa International Airport on a new course, amid promise rivaling the arrival of another new football coach or Trump Tower Tampa.

But Lopano, 59, has delivered in three years as the airport’s chief executive officer, though he’s quick to point out he has plenty more to do.

He’s restructured his staff to reflect an evolving mission as a business enterprise in addition to a transportation center.

He created an airline incentive program to recruit new routes, landing flights to Panama, Switzerland and Seattle, among others.

A $2.5 billion master plan update will enhance the main terminal in lieu of building a separate facility to the north. That is expected to guide development to the south, creating transit, shopping, hotel and other service opportunities better tied to the West Shore Business District.

Lopano’s biggest achievement, however, may be his role as a catalyst in a fresh regional economic development dynamic.

He’s a leader in a group including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and about a half-dozen or so area business leaders who have become regular partners in pursuit of regional growth and jobs.

They’ve contributed incentive funding and sweat equity and traveled from the Pacific Northwest to Latin America and Europe to pursue new flights for the airport. Then they use airport success to promote more business and tourism.

“When I came from Dallas, I believed we could change not only the airport but the community,” Lopano said.

“We are not Tampa. We are Tampa, Sarasota, Clearwater, St. Pete. We are a very, very large metropolitan area. When you look at yourself that way, you can achieve a lot more.

“It also provides catalytic elements for the community to say, ‘You know, we really all can do more.’

“Whether I had a part in driving that, I don’t know, but I do know I am glad to be part of that team.”

Previous airport administrations created a world-class facility, competitive domestic routes that fostered inexpensive fares, and drew down debt that’s helped enable current projects to move forward along with Lopano’s focus on generating new revenue.

But they eschewed incentives to recruit flights, relying on airlines to assess demand and add routes. International routes did not materialize as some hoped.

“We’ve been blessed with great leadership at the airport,” former aviation authority board member and Squire Sanders lawyer Stephen Mitchell said. “Louis Miller did an outstanding job. Joe Lopano continues that reputation of terrific leadership of the airport.”

Mitchell said economic times and business travel needs have changed, requiring new outlooks. Since 2011, Hillsborough and Pinellas County chambers, economic development and visitors bureaus and the airport have combined to provide more than $3 million in airline incentives in cash and in-kind services.

The program’s ultimate success won’t be determined until the incentives expire and flights are maintained, expanded or canceled. But ridership on the new Zurich and Panama flights is promising.

Cuba charter flights that began in 2011 have attracted strong local ridership without incentive programs, although competing carriers have said there’s too little demand at profitable airfare prices to support all the flights currently offered.

The aggressive pursuit of new flights and infrastructure enhancements seemingly reflects a strategy of spending money to make money, anathema to fiscal conservatism that has dominated local politics.

But the aviation authority board, with three Republican gubernatorial appointees, a county commissioner and a Democratic mayor, enthusiastically has supported airport finances.

“We don’t spend money; we invest money,” Lopano said. “Then we measure the return on investment.”

Gov. Rick Scott required that the airport provide a report on investment return upon authorizing $194 million this month for the $1 billion first phase of the master plan project.

The first phase involves main terminal enhancements and expansion to allow growth from the current 17 million annual passengers to a maximum capacity of 34 million passengers in about 2041. A 1.3 mile people mover will link the main terminal, the economy parking garage and a new consolidated car rental facility the size of a large shopping mall.

Among financial goals, the airport’s strategic business plan states: “The Authority has amassed one of the very best employee teams in the airport industry and must ensure its staff members are compensated fairly to retain its talent.”

Lopano’s base annual salary is $330,750, including $80,750 in raises. He also qualifies for a $500,000-plus bonus if he remains with the airport until 2018.

Fifty-nine of the aviation authority’s 570 employees make more than $100,000 a year, up from 40 of 544 employees a year ago with six-figure salaries.

The fiscal 2013 payroll was $33.9 million, compared with the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority’s $33.2 million payroll for 649 employees as of Oct. 3. That includes 37 employees who made more than $100,000 last year. Airport director Phil Brown’s base salary was $237,436. Although Tampa’s salaries are higher, its airport handles 17 million passengers annually, less than half of Orlando’s 35 million.

With high salaries come high expectations. But competition for airlines to select Tampa routes as the most profitable use of their airliners is intense.

Southwest Airlines in December chose Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport as its Florida hub for international flights. It recently gained low-cost carrier Norwegian Air, with Boeing 787 Dreamliners on routes to three Scandinavian cities and London, and added Copa Airlines flights to Panama shortly after Copa announced its Tampa-Panama service.

But Tampa International has San Francisco and additional European destinations on its radar.

“I think Joe Lopano’s tenure has been successful and measurable,” said Tampa Mayor Buckhorn, who objected to the board’s eagerness to give Lopano a $50,000 raise and bonus.

“I think he complements everything else going on in Tampa. He’s put Tampa on the map, planting the flag of Tampa International around the globe.

“It dovetails with what I’ve been talking about since I’ve become mayor, working on the same page, singing the same song and single-mindedly getting new jobs.”

“Every time we open up new (airport) destinations, we open up new economic opportunity and business relations,” said Rick Homans, president and chief executive of Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. “This is how you expand your economic base. The airport is on a roll creating that superconnectivity.”

Lopano said he’s not risk-averse, with a prime example being that he gave up his Dallas job.

“I wanted to become a chief executive officer of a great airport, and Tampa International was a great airport that was underserved in terms of what it could achieve in growth of flights,” he said.

He supports the Pinellas County Greenlight tax initiative to improve transit and thinks Hillsborough County should take steps to improve transit as well — politically contentious issues.

“I would call the changes in Dallas spectacular with the train system they have put in,” Lopano said. “It has changed that city in a positive way forever, and (it’s) why Dallas is a leading city in job creation and investment.

“People in this area say we don’t have the money for that type of system. I ask why does Dallas have it. The money is out there, we just need the vision.”

Lopano keeps a tiny model of a Checker taxi on his desk to remind him of his college job driving cabs to New York City airports. Even today, some of his trips are far from first class, even in his travels with the Tampa Bay region’s economic development contingent.

“I’m with these guys from Tampa who ride around in a nasty van in Panama to (pursue) businesses,” Lopano said. “It’s unlike anything I’ve seen, including Dallas.

“I don’t know if this existed here before, but this community is willing to work together as a team.

(c)2014 the Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Fla.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

Tags: florida, tampa
Photo Credit: Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano makes an announcement. Christine Osborn / Flickr