For the first time in more years than most pilots and tenants can remember, San Diego's elected leaders are working to draw new business to Brown Field.
Mayor Jerry Sanders unveiled a plan yesterday that he hopes will prompt lucrative development at the aging airport. If it succeeds, Brown Field could see new hangars, fixed-base operators, manufacturing plants and more.
"This project will mark the first significant new development at Brown Field since the city took ownership of it in 1962," Sanders said at a late morning news conference on the Brown Field tarmac. "The time is right to support and encourage economic growth of the region."
The first step in the plan involves the formal release of what's called a request for qualifications. Basically, the city wants to identify qualified developers who want to bid on projects that would be built on 65 acres -- a relatively small portion of the airport's 900 acres.
The vacant land is east of the World War II-era terminal. One parcel is 25 acres and the other is 40 acres.
The mayor's proposal -- the first major economic push at Brown Field since the council rejected a cargo project in 2001 -- does nothing to address the dozens of junkyards and other nonaviation businesses that federal officials want evicted.
Sanders' office conceded that most of the nonaeronautical companies probably will be allowed to remain beyond April, when they were supposed to relocate under orders from the Federal Aviation Administration.
When San Diego took ownership of Brown Field 45 years ago, city officials promised the FAA to use the property for flying-related businesses. Instead, it has permitted dozens of wrecking yards, tow companies and other firms to operate there, in part because they pay $600,000 or so a year in rent.
City Hall relies on that rental income to pay for upkeep and operations at Brown Field. But the place has seen almost no public investment in years and the north portion of the property is strewn with litter, wrecked cars, oil and fuel spills and other hazards.
Good first step
FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said yesterday that the request for qualifications was a good first step, but he also said the city needs to continue making progress at the Otay Mesa airport.
"We want and expect all of the issues to be completely resolved, but at the same time we recognize there isn't an immediate demand for all of the land at the airport," he said. "Sixty-five acres is a very good and significant step forward."
The request for qualifications probably will be advertised nationwide to 100 or more development firms, with résumés due at City Hall by Feb. 23. Once the firms that respond to the request are vetted for past projects, financial standing and other criteria, one will be selected and projects will be proposed.
A formal development agreement or memorandum of understanding would then spell out what would be built.
"Is it guaranteed to work? No. But this is the best opportunity to move forward for the city and Brown Field in years," city Real Estate Director Jim Barwick said. "The city now has the will to move forward with aviation development when in the past the city had less of a will."
Elected officials have not always had such a will. In 2001, the City Council rejected the air-cargo project that staff spent years putting together.
That project would have generated hundreds of jobs and tens of millions of dollars in revenue. But council members buckled to complaints from Otay Mesa homeowners that the hub would disrupt their quality of life and lower property values.
Pilots and tenants at Brown Field welcomed Sanders' action yesterday. Almost any new development would improve the business climate at the airport, they said.
"Brown Field has been a diamond in the rough," said Buzz Fink, chairman of the Airport Advisory Committee, which has criticized the city's management of the airstrip for years.
"This a commitment to aviation, a commitment to Brown Field, a commitment to the users and shows the city is ready to move forward," Fink said.
Larry Rothrock of the Experimental Aircraft Association, a private group that leases 2 acres at Brown Field, east of the old terminal, also supports the plan. But he worries about being surrounded by "heavy iron" -- larger planes that may not be compatible with the light aircraft favored by the 300 or so members of his club.
Rothrock was also miffed that no one at City Hall told him the final request for qualifications would include parcels on both sides of his leasehold until it was discussed at a committee meeting last week.
"It's something that so clearly affects us," he said. "There ought to be better communication."
The experimental-craft pilot said the city needs to do a better job marketing the property to manufacturers and assembly plants, an industry that is growing by the year.
"I just hope this isn't a hodgepodge," Rothrock said. "There is no effective master plan for Brown Field and I think it's time to propose one."
Missing from Sanders' press conference was Councilman Ben Hueso or anyone from his office. Hueso, whose Eighth District council seat represents Brown Field, said he worked with Sanders' staff to develop the request for qualifications.
The South Bay councilman said he inserted language into the document that allows developers to pitch projects covering more than the 65 acres outlined by the mayor.
But Hueso declined to commit to evicting the nonconforming tenants at the north end of Brown Field, which remains a key demand from federal regulators.
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