Robert Ball / Andrew West/news-press.com
Robert M. “Bob” Ball
» Title: Executive director, Lee County Port Authority
» Annual salary: $249,627.56
» Oversees: 346 employees engaged in the operation of Southwest Florida International, which served 7.5 million passengers last year, as well as Page Field, Lee County’s general aviation airport.
» Industry service: Board member for the Airports Council International-North America
» Industry honors: Airport Professional of the Year in 2011 and 2003 (Southeast chapter, American Association of Airport Executives); Aviation Professional of the Year in 2009 and 1998 (Florida Department of Transportation).
» Age: 60
» Born: Buffalo, N.Y.
» Family: Wife, Susan; two sons
Robert Ball didn’t let Lee County Port Authority coast after replacing a cramped, dilapidated passenger terminal with a more-than-twice bigger, $438 million complex at Southwest Florida International Airport in 2005.
As other construction activity languished during the recession, Ball and the port authority pushed forward with such projects as the $30 million rehab of the international airport’s aging runway and construction of $16.3 million general aviation terminal complex at Page Field in Fort Myers.
The port authority now is laying the crucial design — and financial groundwork for a second runway at the international airport that is expected to cost in the $300 million range and, depending on demand and funding, open in the mid 2020s.
Ball’s leadership in expanding the airports and building goodwill for the region as port authority executive director has made him a finalist and then winner for The News-Press Person of the Year award.
“We’ve got almost $70 million of construction under way at both airports,” Ball said.
Airport earnings, grants and passenger facility charges are footing the bill. No property tax dollars go to the airports’ operation or construction projects.
The News-Press’ accolade is well-deserved, said Fran Myers, a Fort Myers Beach businesswoman who serves on the county Tourist Development Council as well as on the Airports Special Management Committee.
Ball, said Myers, is “an asset” to Southwest Florida’s tourism and hospitality industry that pumps an estimated $2.6 billion annually into the region’s economy and employs more than 43,000 people in Lee County. Said Myers: “He is one who kept our economic engine going full-speed.”
John Manning was in his first full term as Lee County commissioner in 1993 when Ball was recruited away from the Jacksonville Port Authority, where he worked as aviation director.
“He was a visionary,” Manning said, adding that Ball and staff “have brought a lot of stability to the airport. And, when I hear from passengers, I hear positive things.”
Ball’s influence reaches deep into the community. He serves on FGCU’s Business Advisory Council, while Ben Siegel, authority deputy executive director for administration, sits on the Horizon Council, Lee County's private/public economic development partnership.
“I think there’s a greater recognition and appreciation of what our airports do for tourism and for the economy,” Ball said. He noted that his job is “all about relationships and people.”
Nineteen years into his tenure with Lee County airports, Ball takes particular pleasure in staff development, including intern mentoring and promoting the hiring of military veterans.
A coffee farmer in Tanzania, whose father was baseball legend Jackie Robinson, calls Ball “a change maker.”
Ball has championed the Sweet Unity Farms coffee that is grown by a Tanzania cooperative that David Robinson started. It is marketed directly to the U.S., to improve the returns to those growers at hundreds of small farms.
The coffee now sells at HMSHost food-and-beverage operations, at Great American Bagels and at Shula’s Bar & Grill at Southwest Florida International.
That new income stream helped the farm cooperative order solar panels scheduled for delivery next month. The panels will power an educational, training and entertainment center, a rainwater harvesting irrigation system and several clusters of homes, Robinson said in an email to The News-Press.
“We could have never bridged administratively the 10,000-mile-span between rural Tanzania and corporate America,” Robinson wrote, adding: “Bob made that happen, and gave us the opportunity to focus on the creation of coffee excellence that serves human development as well.”