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Rival Request Clouds Conversion of Air Base

September 09, 1993|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

The Air Force offered the interim lease to local authorities, Frank said, to allow the continued use of Norton by Lockheed Commercial Air Center, which overhauls 747s there, and so the fledgling airport authority could meet a deadline to apply for a $20-million airport development grant from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Norton, identified for closure in 1989, saw the last of its C-141 flights take off this summer, and the Air Force is expected to vacate the property in March--although environmental cleanup of the site will last for years, officials say.

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."

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.

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.

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