Board Wants LAX Diversions, Commercial Flights At SB Airport

A full generation after the shuttering of Norton Air Force Base, the board overseeing the entity that has replaced it sounded a call to make a serious effort to transition it into a regional passenger airport.
The Department of Defense signaled its intention to close Norton Air Force Base in 1988 and made good on that in 1994, an event that is widely recognized as the single largest factor in the demise of the economy in once-thriving San Bernardino.
Before the base closure, in accordance with federal requests, the governmental entities surrounding Norton formed two separate joint powers authorities intended to facilitate the civilian use conversion of the property. One of those was the Inland Valley Development Authority, known by the acronym IVDA, which was chartered to deal with zoning, land use and planning prerogatives to include the creation of light and heavy industrial, office/professional, commercial and residential development on approximately 600 acres on the former base property and roughly 14,000 acres surrounding it. The San Bernardino International Airport Authority was formed to convert the airbase and its airfield and runways into an international airport.
Initially, the County of San Bernardino and the cities of San Bernardino, Colton, Grand Terrace, Loma Linda and Redlands participated in both the agency and the authority, with the county and the City of San Bernardino most heavily involved and invested in the two joint powers authorities.
Despite the infusion of substantial amounts of money from the cities and the rerouting of property tax away from the county and the cities, primarily Highland, San Bernardino and to a lesser extent Redlands and Loma Linda, to the authority and agency to fund their operations, the former air base and its surrounding property languished in a holding pattern, essentially for the next two decades. A series of individuals were brought in to act as the authority’s and the agency’s executive directors, several of whom were political appointments and/or former elected officials provided with six figure salaries. Token efforts toward transforming the base into an airport were made, but no real progress in that direction was achieved.
Recognizing that both the authority and the agency were being exploited by certain board members and staff members, the cities of Redlands and Grand Terrace opted out of both joint powers arrangements. The City of Highland, which grew highly skeptical after witnessing the position of Inland Valley Development Agency executive director being given to T. Milford Harrison, a former Loma Linda councilman and mayor and that city’s economic development director, withdrew from the Inland Valley Economic Development Agency.
Meanwhile, property tax money that would have otherwise gone to the cities upon which the airport sits as well as the surrounding cities – San Bernardino, Highland, Redlands and Loma Linda – has instead been slurped up by the authority and the agency. The cities have thus missed out on hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue over the last two-and-one-half decades.
In 2007, without any competitive bidding, the San Bernardino International Airport Authority brought in Scot Spencer to serve as the contract developer and manager of the airport. Spencer had served a four-year prison term from 1995 until 1999 as a result of his fraud conviction relating to his having, in conjunction with financier Jeffrey Chodorow, absconded with $14 million of company and investor funds by hiding payments to a shell company they created after they swooped in to create Dallas-based Braniff International Airlines, Inc. after Braniff Airways, which had been in operation since 1928, had faltered and fell into bankruptcy in 1982.
Spencer used his position as airport manager at San Bernardino International to provide businesses he owned favorable leasing arrangements while obstructing other aviation-related companies from operating. As the contract developer of the airport, Spencer was paid to oversee what was supposed to be a $38 million renovation of the airport’s passenger terminal and a $7 million development of its concourse. Spencer undertook that assignment amid confident predictions that upon completion of those projects, the airport would attract at least one and perhaps as many as a half dozen commercial passenger carriers.  In carrying out that project, Spencer used two corporations he owned, Norton Development Company, LLC and SBD Properties, LLC. The cost of the passenger terminal and the concourse escalated to $142 million. While that effort did deliver a first class terminal, that facility has for nearly a decade sat fallow and virtually unused, as the airport has yet to host any commercial airlines, although corporate jets and other private pilots did land at the Million Air corporate aviation facility, for which Spencer was the franchisee, from 2010 until 2012.  Another $210 million was invested in airport facilities, which have gone largely unused over the last decade.
In March 2013, Spencer was arrested by the FBI and charged with engaging in a conspiracy to steal $1.75 million in public funds, a gambit which ultimately netted him $1.03 million, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
At the September 25 meeting of the San Bernardino International Airport Authority Board, members talked about doing something to get the airport off of top dead center so that it actually functions like an airport, where planes land and from which planes take off. It was suggested that grandiose designs such as those implied in the airport’s branding as an international facility was a bit unrealistic at this point and that the airport would need to grow gradually and incrementally. Most logical in that progression was getting more charter flights to use the facility and to have it recognized as a convenient alternative landing facility for the Southland’s two largest airports, Los Angeles International Airport and Ontario International Airport.
Loma Linda Councilman Ovidiu Popescu, who is his city’s representative on the authority, said, “I think there’s an opportunity for charter flights. We’ve had a few. I think we can have a lot more. We’ve had some military flights. I think there’s an opportunity to have even more. I think that should be a key focus. We’ve just been added to the FAA’s [the Federal Aviation Administration’s] list of being a diversionary airport and I think we should work hard to talk to every single airline that goes into LAX [Los Angeles International Airport] to use us in case they need us. Most people don’t realize that there’s literally dozens and dozens of flights that get diverted from LAX because of weather. They get moved everywhere.”
Popescu referenced having supply bunks and beds in whatever Air Force barracks remain at the base, where passengers waiting at the airport could be put up for several hours or a whole night while the control tower makes arrangements for the flight they were on to be sent on to its original destination. “It’s an opportunity for us,” Popescu said. “It’s a very niche market because in a sense we’re not a very busy airport. We could meet that niche. I think that should be the goal.”
Highland Councilman Larry McCallon said, “This airport should be the economic engine for this part of the county. So far, it’s evolving, but I think we can do more in terms of generating jobs and helping the economy in this area.”
Colton’s representative on the board, Mayor Frank Navarro, rather dubiously asserted “The jobs we have created are greater than what was here when Norton was active. That’s commendable that we did provide all those jobs.  We are at at point where our logistics is pretty well set up.”
Navarro continued, “We are still working on logistical deals and yes, I do agree that we do need to expand the utilization of the airport to include commercial airlines coming in. Whether it’s one or two to begin with, it’s a baby-step thing. And the first and most critical item we have to address is Customs being here available when the flights come in. If a flight’s coming in and we don’t have the support staff from Customs, flights aren’t going to stop here. It’s going to go someplace else. So, we need to make sure we get that part of the plan set up in a concrete fashion to where we can say, ‘Yes, we feel very strong. We feel comfortable in the relationship we have established with Customs.’ So we can tell this airline, ‘We’re ready for you.’”
San Bernardino Coucilman Ted Sanchez, who with Mayor John Valdivia represents the City of San Bernardino on the authority board, said the authority and the airport’s management needed to “adjust the [airport’s] business plan to reflect the priorities the board has established.”
Valdivia, the board’s chairman, told Sanchez to make a stab at framing a resolution the board could vote upon.
“So, first of all, that staff actively approach fulfilling the goal of bringing commercial airlines…” Sanchez began, whereupon Valdivia interjected, “-meaning international or domestic scheduled passenger flights,” after which Sanchez continued, “as well as actively approach getting personnel from the Customs and Border Patrol to staff our airport needs and we’re also looking to diversify our cargo intake. Right now we’re vulnerable to the whims of the market. We need to diversify our investments and our marketing of this airport as a commercial cargo hub.”
Thereupon the full board, including Third District San Bernardino County Supervisor Dawn Rowe, voted to have staff “begin actively fulfilling a goal of bringing commercial airlines whether they be domestic or international [and] actively approach getting personal from Customs and Border Patrol to staff”  the airport.
-Mark Gutglueck

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