Support sought for cargo airport

January 26, 2002|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

In what is being hailed as one of the most important economic development opportunities in the Imperial Valley's history, local officials are taking their first strides toward building public support for a cargo airport.

During a public meeting Friday to discuss the concept of a cargo airport in the area, officials from throughout the Valley said it will take united support to bring the project to fruition.

Without such support, the project will fail much as it did in San Diego County, where a group of private investors sought to build a cargo airport within Otay Mesa's Brown Field. The project failed for lack of support.

Those same investors are now looking closely at the Valley and local officials want to make sure the investors like what they see.


On the line: The possibility of 7,500 new jobs sparked by the airport, hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for the county and the chance at opening a railway system between the Valley and San Diego.

"The only way this is going to happen is by consensus," said Lanny Foote, chairman of the Imperial Valley Economic Development Commission. The commission is a nonprofit group working to promote and market the Valley to attract new industry and business.

The IVEDC is spearheading the effort to build public support for a cargo airport. It is an effort that will depend on sustained public support as it likely would be a five-year project.

Officials who spoke during Friday's meeting at the Plaza de la Cultura at the Imperial Valley Expo in Imperial, said San Diego's "weakest link" was its lack of support for the Brown Field project.

Officials said the Imperial Valley has land available to meet the needs of a cargo airport.

They said for that reason it is possible such an airport could be built here but added the Valley's strongest link has to be community support.

At this point, the concept of a cargo airport is nothing more than an idea.

No location within the Valley has been chosen for such a facility, and Friday's meeting was just the first of what likely will be several public gatherings to discuss the idea.

One point was made clear Friday: It might take some local investment for the project to come to fruition.

One of the initial steps will be to have a feasibility study done to determine where an airport could be located. Such a study could cost as much as $400,000.

Officials said they will look toward federal sources and private sources to provide funds. However, they said local government support also may be needed to move the idea forward.

The goal of the meeting was to open the way toward more public discussion on the matter and to start to formalize a group that will play a leading role in bringing the cargo airport to the Valley.

To date there has been an informal group of Imperial Valley officials working on the effort.

Those people are Louis Fuentes, president and CEO of IVEDC; Ann Capela, county executive officer; John Lau, a local consultant; Vince Long, Imperial city manager; Joe Maruca and Hank Kuiper, county supervisors; Rudy Maldonado, Imperial Irrigation District director; and Foote.

During the meeting, Foote credited Maldonado for playing a key role in bringing in those who had been working on the Brown Field project.

Maldonado organized a day-long tour of the Valley for the business leaders and officials from San Diego.

It was during the tour that a representative of the private investors involved in the Brown Field project voiced interest in the Valley.

Those leading the charge to bring such an airport here said the plan now will be to address local city governments, chambers of commerce and other organizations to rally support.

"We will go to any group that will have us," Capela said, who added now is the time to put all the ideas on the table to see what will work and what will not work.

One factor that must be included in discussions is the possible effect a cargo airport would have on Naval Air Facility El Centro.

Larry Crane, commanding officer of the Navy base, was present Friday. In an interview with a reporter, he said it is possible for the base to co-exist with a cargo airport.

"With the proper planning we can co-exist peacefully," Crane said, adding, "They have turned to us and asked ‘What will be the effect?' When they turn to us, that only helps both parties."

Officials said the cargo airport represents a chance for the Valley to pick up the pieces of a project that failed to garner the support it needed in San Diego County.

"This is our horse now," Maruca said, adding not only would the Valley benefit from an airport, there would be ancillary businesses such as warehouses and manufacturing industries that would follow.

Capela said, "The community has an opportunity right now. The key to this is community support. The community needs to be engaged in order for it to succeed."

>> Staff Writer Darren Simon can be reached at 337-4082.

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