Many Villagers might not know it, but Leesburg International Airport has its own U.S. Customs Office thanks to late Villages Developer H. Gary Morse.
The tab for the Customs operation, which opened in the summer of 2005, was estimated to be more than $450,000 for the initial setup, and then $120,000 per year going forward. Morse gladly agreed to pay those amounts because he knew it would save him big dollars in the long run.
Villages lore has it that Morse, a huge supporter of President Bush – he held the elite status of being a “Ranger” on the president’s re-election donor list, which meant he had rounded up least $200,000 in contributions – and a strong ally of his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, needed political help to make the Customs Office a reality. That supposedly came in the form of a letter written by the governor in January 2005 offering support for the then-Leesburg Regional Airport receiving the Customs facility.
Morse, who was known for owning a fleet of aircraft and traveling extensively, stood to come out ahead on the tab for the Customs Office because his corporate jets were making multiple international trips every month, with the majority being to Mexico and the Bahamas. Having a Customs agent in Leesburg would make travel easier on potential international homebuyers or business partners who might be coming to town on the Morse jets.
At the time the Customs Office was becoming a reality, The Villages brass would sometimes send department heads in the community’s various divisions on trips. Morse family members also made multiple trips to various locations throughout the year. And prior to the Customs Office opening, the planes would have to make an extra stop at a different airport on the way home – for instance, in Texas when returning from Mexico.
Those additional stops costs several thousand dollars and extra time per trip. So having a Customs agent check the jets when they landed back in Leesburg really was a no-brainer that would save The Villages quite a bit of money on an annual basis.
Interestingly, the Leesburg Customs operation became the fifth such office operating at Central Florida airports. The others were Orlando International Airport, Orlando Sanford International Airport, Melbourne International Airport and Daytona Beach International Airport.
Leesburg’s airport was the smallest of the five, with construction just starting on an air-traffic control tower. But the following year, thanks in part to the acquisition of the Customs Office, the facility gained its much desired international designation.
Not surprisingly, Leesburg officials were in favor of the Customs office coming to town, largely because they knew it would help them expand the airport in the future. But they likely were most excited because Morse agreed to pick up the entire tab – Mayor John Christian had been quoted as saying the city liked to accommodate its neighbors to the north – meaning they gained a huge benefit from The Villages without really have to give anything in return.
Morse apparently had been working to get a local Customs Office for about five years before it became a reality. At one time, a Customs official had been housed at the Ocala airport but an ever-increasing tab led those airport officials to abandon the operation after funding it for about seven years.
The Customs agent stationed at the Leesburg airport was scheduled to make about $56,000 annually, with The Villages also picking up the bill for other costs, such as support staff to man the office.
Several months after the Customs Office opened its doors, there was quite a bit of fanfare when the Leesburg airport officially gained international status. The city paid to have a temporary sign installed that showed the word “Regional” with a red line through it and the word “International” painted in red above it. And plans were in the works to attempt to bring charter flights into the airport as improvements across the board were continuing to be made at the facility.
Bringing a Customs Office to Leesburg wasn’t the first time Morse had turned heads at the airport. In 1998, the city was abuzz when it was announced that he would be building the largest hangar in the history of the airport. Management at Leesburg Regional Airport revealed that the new 95,000-square-foot hangar would be able to house several planes – Morse would build up his corporate jet aircraft inventory over the years – and include office space as well. And the lease also gave The Villages the opportunity to operate a commercial flight service, though Morse made it clear the facility was for private use.
In the summer of 1999, as Morse’s hangar – it was being constructed by builders from the mega-retirement community – on a two-acre plot began to take shape, it quickly became clear that it was going to look like no other building at the small airport, which was pretty much known in those days for older metal utility buildings. In fact, it towered above most of its neighbors and in some ways resembled a mansion of sorts, complete with trees, a sloping, shingled roof and covered parking. And onlookers were aplenty as the fall approached and the massive new hangar was readied for use.