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Riverside Charity's Request Clouds Conversion of Air Base : Transportation: If Norton becomes a commercial hub, it would not affect a proposed airport in El Toro, study says.


SAN BERNARDINO — The transition of Norton Air Force Base to a commercial, mixed-use airport--a development that local boosters say will lead to the economic revival of the region--moved a step closer Wednesday with the signing of an interim lease by the Air Force Base Disposal Agency, giving the base to local authorities.

But standing in the way of a future airport, federal officials warn, is an eleventh-hour request by a Riverside-based charity organization that wants to use the 51-year-old facility--and its 10,000-foot runway.

Local officials are trying to ignore the competing interests in Norton, and said its conversion to commercial passenger and cargo flights and its potential as a hub for other commercial and industrial purposes signals a new era of economic development for the region.

Indeed, Swen Larson, president of the San Bernardino International Airport Authority, made no mention of competition for Norton when he announced at a meeting here of Gov. Pete Wilson's Military Base Reuse Task Force that an interim, 90-day lease of the facility had been approved. The lease, approved Wednesday by the Air Force in Washington, gives the airport authority control of about 1,000 acres--about half the base, including the airfield, the control tower and a terminal building.

The two sides will work toward signing a 55-year lease of Norton, Larson said, and he predicted that commercial passenger flights could begin by next spring with a major--but as yet unidentified--air carrier.

Still to be considered, however, is a request to the federal government last month by the Western Eagle Foundation, which serves as a food bank that provides meals for 100,000 homeless people in Riverside and San Bernardino counties and sponsors flights of mercy to other Western states and into Baja California through a network of ministries and churches, spokesman Tom Huff said. Western Eagle wants to use Norton to develop various job training and employment opportunities and as a base for worldwide humanitarian flights, he said.

Federal law on the disposal of closed military bases demands that high priority be given to providers of services for the homeless. Because of the pending request by the local charity, a long-term lease of Norton could not be offered to the San Bernardino International Airport Authority, said Joyce Frank, spokeswoman for the Air Force Base Disposal Agency.

Western Eagle's request to use Norton is before the Department of Health and Human Services, and is expected to be resolved within 90 days.

In Orange County, officials said that a commercial airport at Norton would have minimal effect, should the county decide to develop a commercial airport at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station when the base closes in four to six years.

The Southern California Assn. of Governments has been studying the impact of military base closures on annual passenger demand at regional airports, and has preliminarily concluded that the San Bernardino County airport would draw passengers from Ontario International Airport.

In early reports, the association of governments has indicated that the Norton base might take some passengers away from the northeast portion of Orange County. But if a commercial airport is developed at El Toro, it is very unlikely that passengers would leave Orange County, officials have stated previously.

Also under discussion is the possible development of an airport at March Air Force Base in Riverside County, which the association concluded would draw almost all of its passengers from Norton, since they would be serving the same general area.

In Riverside, meanwhile, airport authority executive director Trevor Van Horn said he would not comment on Western Eagle's application for using Norton--which, if successful, would undermine 14 months of negotiations between the airport authority and the Air Force. Already, the authority and the Inland Valley Development Agency have spent $10 million on the effort.

Van Horn acknowledged "a certain amount of risk" exists in pursuing the airport plans, given the pending application by Western Eagle, but nonetheless called Wednesday's agreement "historic."

"We're pretty darned excited," he said. "We've taken the interim step in taking control of the airport on a long-term basis. We will start the conversion process tomorrow" by taking over maintenance of the base and analyzing what parts of its infrastructure need to be modernized, he said.

Larson, president of the seven-member airport authority, said among those interested in using the facility are a nationwide trucking company, an air cargo terminal operator, a small aerospace company proposing mid-air launches of satellites from 747s, and Southern California Gas Co., which would use facilities there to convert fossil-fuel engines to natural gas use.

He said an announcement is expected within four weeks that a major air carrier, code-named "Adobe Airlines" for now, will fly out of Norton.

Times staff writer Gebe Martinez contributed to this report.

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