Right Man for Job; Longtime Aircraft-Industry Figure Getting Repurposed Airport Noticed

Some 50 miles north of the congested streets and skies of the Inland region, the airport that was formerly George Air Force Base sprawls across 5,000 acres in the High Desert.

When the base was decommissioned in 1992, the Victor Valley lost more than 8,000 jobs, and the Southern California Logistics Airport, as the base site is now known, stagnated until 2000, when an aircraft industry veteran and former president of Douglas Aircraft Co. was hired as a consultant to help attract businesses.

Seven years and about 3,000 new jobs later, the airport is one of the region's most successful former military bases at attracting jobs.

"I started with the ugliest-looking airport you've ever seen," said Jim Worsham, who for the past seven years has worked full-time as the airport's marketing and business development chief. "There was nothing here but tumbleweeds."

Some of the largest aerospace companies in the world have set up shop at the airport, including General Electric, Boeing and Pratt & Whitney.

"I'm not a marketer," said Worsham, an engineer by training. "But I understand marketing 101. You have to seduce these people to come here."

CONNECTIONS

Despite the airport's natural advantages, including clear weather, plenty of space and no noise or curfew problems, Worsham admits much of his recent success has been a result of the connections he spent more than five decades building in the aircraft industry.

Before his time at Douglas Aircraft, Worsham, 83, spent many years as an engineer and executive at General Electric.

"When Worsham began touting the airport, he was in a position to get the major players to take a look at the airport," said Redlands-based economist John Husing.

Husing said the growth of aerospace testing at the airport was a direct result of Worsham's connections throughout the industry.

"Their strategies now have just been targets of opportunity," Husing said. "It's generally come down to some company comes after them because of Worsham."

And that's resulted in one of the fastest job-growth rates of any of the base re-use airports in the region.

About 10,000 jobs were lost in the decommissioning of Norton Air Force Base in 1991, but San Bernardino International Airport, which now occupies the base site, has recouped almost 2,500 jobs. Of the 6,000 jobs lost when March Air Force Base downsized as March Air Reserve Base in 1996, about 1,300 have been replaced.

Worsham is careful not to call the other airports in the Inland region enemies.

"We're all clearly competitors," he said. "But we'd rather business go to Norton or March than outside of Southern California."

COMMUNITY INVESTMENT

Michael Burrows, assistant director of the San Bernardino airport, said much of the success of a former base depends on its ability to offer facilities that meet the needs of potential customers.

"A lot of time, those firms are not going to come where facilities aren't online yet," he said. "For a while, we were not in a position to get folks to locate here because our runway was in shambles. But during that time, there was a lot of activity in the marketplace, and the folks up in Victorville were able to attract those firms."

Part of the struggle was to persuade the city of Victorville to invest in its hangars in order to provide room for firms that wanted to do maintenance or testing, Worsham said. The city eventually spent about $90 million revamping hangars and building new ones.

Husing said the Victor Valley may become the next center of warehousing and transportation development in Southern California after land along the Interstate 10 corridor runs out.

BNSF Railway Co. and Victorville officials are negotiating a deal that would have the railroad build a yard on 350 acres east of the airport.

As a result, the airport still is largely focused on attracting air cargo there, but it generally gets only a few flights a month.

Worsham said his next project is to attract air taxi service to the airport and to try to lure more companies there for service, maintenance and to do testing.

"The key is just showing these companies why they should come here," he said. "But you can't let them down. And in 55 years in this business, I haven't disappointed many people."



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