LAKELAND — The hum of small aircraft flying across sunny skies seemed a positive omen for Lakeland's Aerospace Center for Excellence as it broke ground on its $4.6 million expansion.
Polk County and Lakeland officials gathered Wednesday morning on the Sun 'n Fun campus at Lakeland Linder International Airport to celebrate the start of construction on ACE's 8,000-square-foot expansion called "Project SkyLab."
John "Lites" Leenhouts, president and CEO of Sun 'n Fun, heralded the building as "one of the most monumental" education facilities to be built in Polk County.
"We are growing to create a flight path into the future of aviation and, more importantly, a superhighway for students to achieve success as we change the landscape of learning in Polk County," Leenhouts said. "Hands-on STEM learning to put the fun back into the sciences and engage young men and women to find a career in the aerospace industry."
The expansion will serve as an educational laboratory to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics and encourage interest in related career paths. It will become part of the 14-building campus that serves as home to the Central Florida Aerospace Academy, a Polk County public high school career academy focused on training the next generation of pilots, airplane engineers and mechanics.
"It's all about making sure we give our children the opportunity to excel in life, to make sure they have their dreams and we tap into what their passions are," Polk County Schools Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd said. "This is the passion of a lot of our students — STEM, aerospace and avionics."
Ed Young, ACE's executive director, said the center introduces hundreds of Polk County students to STEM-based learning through classes and field trips each year — and those numbers keep climbing. It reported an increase from 9,000 to approximately 40,000 student participants from 2017 to 2019.
"Each kid on a field trip, they are in a place where they can be shaped," Young said. "They can choose to be a single-use pop can — we hope not — or they can choose to be pilots, engineers, air traffic controllers or rocket scientists."
Young said the new facility will have roll-up doors so aircraft and large museum exhibits can be brought into classrooms. Other features will include a holographic theatre and planetarium with three-dimensional computer software to allow students to see, visualize and possibly create pieces to fit in aircraft engineering plans, and an aerospace resource center.
Gene Conrad, director of Lakeland Linder airport, said these types of facilities and programs are paramount to the future of the aviation industry as there is a worldwide shortage of pilots, aircraft mechanics and air traffic controllers.
"When we talk about sustainability here, we are talking about the sustainability of our industry and how do we keep it going," Conrad said. "This is vitally important."
Construction has started a year ahead of schedule because of generous financial backers, according to Young, but ACE is still seeking donors to help fund the remaining 20% of the project. There is a $1-for-$1 match being made through March 1 by the James C. Ray Foundation at www.flysnf.org/project-skylab.
Lakeland Commissioner Scott Franklin, a former U.S. Navy pilot who sits on Sun 'n Fun's board of directors, said he's happy to see the long-awaited project come to fruition.
"Aviation is critical to all of our economy, he said. " We depend on pilots, mechanics and air traffic controllers and there's a dire shortage of those everywhere. There's really no place in the country doing a better job than what we have right here at ACE, Sun 'n Fun and the aerospace academy."
Sara-Megan Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7545.
©2020 The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.)