WINTER HAVEN — Polk County’s second largest city has found the guy it thinks can help its airport take flight.
Alex Vacha, 28, started his new job as general manager of the Winter Haven Regional Airport on Monday. Vacha had been the manager of the Lake Wales Municipal Airport since April 2016.
“I really loved what I was doing,” Vacha said. “Winter Haven is a much larger airport, but I like the seaplane niche a lot. With the jet traffic and the commercial element, Winter Haven really has a lot going on.”
The first airport manager in Lake Wales since it moved from a fixed-base operator system, Vacha helped bring events including the collegiate skydiving championships to the airport. Lake Wales City Manager Ken Fields said Vacha was efficient in managing projects as well.
“We were very fortunate to have him,” Fields said. “We had a bunch of very experienced people apply. From the first interview, he really impressed with his enthusiasm, his knowledge and he really hit the ground running.”
Merle Bishop, growth-management director in Winter Haven, said similar things. Vacha was one of 58 applicants for the vacancy.
“The thing that really struck us with Alex was his passion and his attitude,” Bishop said. “We liked what he did in Lake Wales, taking it from basically nothing to getting projects approved. He’s really smart, and if he doesn’t know the answer, he works hard to find it out.”
Vacha replaces Leo Treggi, who left to take a job in Fort Lauderdale in September. Treggi spent three years on the job.
“The outside and non-aviation development are some things I really want to work to bring to the city,” Vacha said. “The push for me is going to be to monitor the projects and to work with the (Greater Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce and Winter Haven Economic Development Council) to bring folks to the airport.”
Bishop noted that a hotel was recently built near Lakeland Linder Airport on Drane Field Road and thinks Winter Haven has the potential for development near the airport on U.S. 92.
“People are seeing the possibility of expansion,” Bishop said. “Many other airports have non-aviation components near them. The challenge is finding the funding.”
Vacha holds a bachelor’s degree in aeronautics from Embry-Riddle University in Daytona as well as a master’s from the Florida Institute of Technology. According to a release, Vacha worked with the Polk County Economic Development Council and Polk County Global Trade Alliance to recruit new businesses to the area.
“I want to emphasize that the communication is going to be very open,” Vacha said. “I want to know what the community wants to see happening here at the airport.”
A captain in the U.S. Army Reserve flying Black Hawk helicopters since 2011, Vacha and his wife of nearly four years, Marissa, live in East Pinellas County. After completing his eight years in the reserve, Vacha said he will consider moving into the city.
“The lakes are a really cool part of Winter Haven, and I hope to make moving here a goal,” he said. “It’s been a great experience coming into the city. Everyone with the airport staff and the tenants here at the airport have been real supportive.”
In Lake Wales, Fields said the city is in the process of looking for his replacement.
“I’m disappointed we lost him that quickly, but I’m not surprised Winter Haven hired him,” Fields said. “I wish him the best. I’m sorry to see him go, but I’m always excited to see one of our employees move on to bigger and better things. They’re getting a great airport manager. I’m confident we’ll find someone qualified to fill the position.”
Vacha will be paid $75,000 per year in Winter Haven.
“It’s been a busy first couple of days, but it’s been fun so far,” Vacha said. “I’m really excited and I think everyone should be excited about what’s going on here in Winter Haven.”
Mike Ferguson can be reached at Mike.Ferguson@theledger.com or 863-401-6981. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.