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A Bolt From the Blue : A 4-Year Effort to Turn Norton Air Force Base Into a Civilian Airport May Be Grounded by an 11th-Hour Bid to Create a Huge Homeless Aid Center


SAN BERNARDINO — As communities throughout the country wrestle with the closure of military bases, they might well have envied how efficiently and cleanly the conversion of an Air Force base to a civilian airport seemed to be proceeding here.

But now they should also consider how the best-laid plans of politicians and civic leaders can take a sudden, unexpected nose-dive. Because someone else in town, it turns out, wants to turn the base into the nation's largest homeless assistance center and has the federal government's ear.

"It's hard to conceive," says Trevor Van Horn, the frustrated executive director of the would-be airport, "that we've spent four years planning this, spent $11 million, and someone could come in at the 11th hour and, with no financial support and no master planning, make (a competing) application for the base."

And by law, that opposing request will receive priority consideration over the longer-established airport plans because of congressional direction that providers of services for the homeless be given first crack at surplus military bases.

Until a few weeks ago, community leaders here believed, for good reason, that they were in line to take control of Norton Air Force Base and turn it into a "crown jewel of the region's economic renewal," as one local official gushes.

The closure of the 51-year-old base hit the area hard because it employed 10,000 people, including 4,000 civilian workers. But rather than kick and scream when Norton's closure was announced in 1988, community leaders started immediately planning to convert the 2,000-acre base and its 10,000-foot-long runway into an international airport.

Planners talked of commercial passenger service, worldwide cargo operations and leasing part of the base to businesses that would range from the deployment from 747s of communication satellites to the conversion of gasoline engines to compressed natural gas.

Within 10 years, according to projections, the new San Bernardino International Airport would generate more money for the region than the Air Force ever did, and there would be no more regrets over the loss of Norton.

But like some bogey suddenly appearing from behind the clouds, a small charity organization named Western Eagle set its sights on Norton Air Force Base just this summer. Its mission: turning Norton into the nation's largest job skills trainer, employer, feeder and lodger of homeless people.

Until now, 2-year-old Western Eagle has been little more than a volunteer-run food bank, accepting groceries and other bulk food donations from grocery stores, local manufacturers and farmers, then offering them to more than 30 church, community and other organizations that help feed the poor in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

By its own measure, Western Eagle stores and distributes about 30,000 pounds of food a week through its network of provider organizations--each of which pays $25 a week to Western Eagle to help pay the charity's office and utility costs.

"They're big time," Mike DiMillo of the nonprofit Hemet Food Center said of Western Eagle. "Last month we provided 22,000 meals, and the bulk of the food came from Western Eagle."

Western Eagle recently moved from Riverside to larger facilities in San Bernardino. But it had little thought of major expansion until it learned that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in June listed Norton Air Force Base as a suitable site for a homeless facility in accordance with Title V of the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987.

That law requires the Department of Defense to give homeless assistance organizations priority consideration to use closed military bases. Qualified nonprofit organizations can apply to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to use the surplus bases, which Western Eagle did on July 2.

Unlike about 40 other homeless service providers around the country that have won access to portions of former military bases--barracks, office buildings or warehouses--to operate their programs, Western Eagle says it can use all of Norton, including the runway, from which it wants to fly humanitarian missions worldwide.

Several government officials who work on McKinney Act implementation said they don't know of any proposals as grand as Western Eagle's.

Western Eagle is in the process of meeting an Oct. 27 deadline to complete the application. If the Department of Health and Human Services blesses Western Eagle's efforts, the Air Force Base Disposal Agency is expected by law to grant the request.

It has the option of denying the request, but then must explain to Congress why the homeless proposal was not in the best public interest, said Rayford Kytle, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services.

The Air Force Base Disposal Agency is aware of the competing interests for Norton, and a spokeswoman said that if Western Eagle's application is approved, the agency would try hard to negotiate a compromise.

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