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San Joaquin County has big plans for Stockton Airport

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Posted: Thursday, December 26, 2002 10:00 pm

When most people think of airports, they envision commercial jets zooming down runways filled with people taking trips to faraway places, or loved ones coming home for the holidays.

However, to the political and business leaders in San Joaquin County, the Stockton Metropolitan Airport represents more than just an opportunity for commercial travel.

Visions of a several-hundred-acre transportation hub and business-industrial park center come to their minds.

The Stockton Metropolitan Airport at a glance

  • In 1925, Bill Gregg landed his Curtiss Jenny in Wilbur Salmon's pasture which is the present site of the Stockton Metropolitan Airport.
  • The city of Stockton, in 1926, purchased Salmon's lease on the land, where the airman had landed, and proceeded to build a runway.
  • On May 7, 1927, the Stockton Municipal Airport became the field's name, and the city held a dedication ceremony and the first air show.
  • The U.S. military used the airport for a variety of purposes from 1940 to 1948.

  • In 1945, Stockton Airfield was the largest advanced military pilot training base in the West.
  • Here's a piece of trivia: Lt. Thomas Lanphier, an Army Air Forces pilot who trained at Stockton Airfield, shot down Adm. Yamamoto's plane in the Pacific during the Battle of Guadalcanal. Yamamoto was the chief architect of the Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor attack.
  • In 1946, United Airlines began its first scheduled service from Stockton to Los Angeles and San Francisco with DC-3 equipment.
  • San Joaquin County accepted sole ownership of the airport July 1, 1956.
  • The California National Guard armory opened in 1959 and still exists there today.
  • The runway is 8,650 feet.
  • The airport sits on 1,500 acres.
  • The airport exists on a $6.5 million budget, of which $798,000 is subsidized by the San Joaquin County budget.

Source: The Stockton Metropolitan Airport

Specifically, they see jumbo jets blazoned with FedEx logos rumbling down the 8,650-foot runway bringing in - and carrying out - all sorts of cargo, and they see large Internet-based businesses, such as, using Stockton as homeport for product storage and shipping.

Also, in their minds, they envision scientific research and development centers, electronic component builders, and insurance call centers popping up.

And when all of these things come together, they hope higher-paying jobs will follow, and in the process make the county a place to work and not just a place for affordable housing.

"Ultimately, it will raise the standard of living in San Joaquin County," said Supervisor Jack Sieglock, whose district includes Lodi. "All of us recognize the importance of that area and what it can mean to our region and for our future. It is one of those untouched opportunities whose day has finally arrived."

Plum geography plays a role as well.

"We have Interstate 5 and Highway 99, the (Stockton) port and the airline - we have all these things going on here," said Tom Flinn, the county's public works director.

Flinn's department is one of several coming together to develop the airport and its vast surrounding region. The city of Stockton, San Joaquin County, the San Joaquin Partnership, the Council of Governments and even the efforts of Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, in Washington, D.C., are working in unison to make the dream a reality - someday.

It's because of community support that a master plan to develop the area is getting under way, airport Director Barry Rondinella said.

"I can not overstate the value of all of that support. It's huge," Rondinella said. "That community support is what will make this airport successful."

As the master plan unfolds, continued support is critical, he said.

Growing an airport

Part of the master plan is to make the county-owned airport bustling - or at least busier than its current state.

Rondinella plays an integral role in building the airport from its sleepy existence into a formidable transportation hub for the county and for the region. But while it's being built, the flow of people is at a slow trickle with only one airline, America West Express, offering two inbound and two outbound flights per day.

Rondinella hopes to change the tempo of Stockton Metro in the coming years, but nobody knows exactly how long it will take - it might be three, six or 10 years before the airport is a transportation player in the Central Valley.

Still, Rondinella is actively wooing other airlines to bring service to Stockton.

Southwest Airlines and Horizon Air top Rondinella's list. He is in weekly contact with the airlines just to remind them that Stockton exists.

Furthermore, a January meeting between Rondinella and Southwest Airlines - perhaps the most competitive airline in the business - is planned. In addition to bringing in new airlines, Rondinella said he would like to offer local residents flights to Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Seattle in the future.

But bringing in the likes of Southwest is not an easy task. It takes a lot of money - enough to fill a Boeing 747.

"The feeling of airlines is that if they're going to commit to a market, they want to make sure they have flights," Rondinella said.

Southwest Airlines wouldn't confirm if the Texas-based company is looking at Stockton.

Cheryl Temple, a Horizon Air spokeswoman, wasn't ready to divulge what towns are on her company's "A" list either, but she said the Seattle-based airline is always looking at new markets.

Both airlines agree that coming to a new market is an expensive proposition. However, because of subsidized investments, the airlines do not solely carry the financial burden of bringing service to an airport such as Stockton.

A plan known as "Travel Banks" brings private and government money together into an escrow account from which the airline can withdraw cash as it's needed.

Stockton Metro has such a plan in place with San Joaquin County, private citizens and America West in the amount of $800,000, Rondinella said.

Eventually, that amount will run down, but the hope is when that time comes, the airline is profitable enough to survive on its own in the Stockton market.

In the meantime, America West is offering rides to Phoenix, a gateway city to other United States and world destinations. The plane of choice for the Stockton passengers is the 50-passenger Canadair Regional Jet.

"They are the best hope for small community to provide air service." Rondinella said. "It's as fast as anything. It's like flying your own corporate jet."

The America West flights out of Stockton are generally competitively priced.

A round-trip fare from Stockton to Minneapolis, with a layover in Phoenix, with one month advance notice and a week layover, costs $258 per adult. Stockton also offers free parking to its travelers.

The same trip cost $238 if taken from Sacramento International Airport where a layover in Phoenix is also necessary. When parking ($7 per day for long-term in Sacramento), and gas are factored in, flying from Stockton is a money saver.

But the problem with Stockton is the lack of choice: There are only two inbound and outbound flights per day. Local travelers can't get to Los Angeles or San Diego from Stockton without landing in Phoenix first - a plan so time consuming that it makes a flight from Sacramento much more attractive.

More flights through America West and other airlines will be added when the current two flights fill up a bit more, Rondinella said.

"The closer we get to 80 percent capacity on a sustained basis, the more likely we are to attract other airlines," he said.

The flights have been at 70 percent passenger capacity for most of the year, he said, with a slight increase to 85 percent in the summer months.

"It's so vital that local folks fly out of the Stockton Airport," Rondinella said. "If we make America West successful, we'll send ripples through the industry - and then we'll get other airlines."

Janice Monahan, an American West spokeswoman, said the company does not release passenger capacity, but that system wide it is doing well in relationship to the travel industry's economic problems.

Rondinella compares Stockton Metro's current situation to Sacramento's early days before bigger airlines offered flights.

"Before the arrival of Southwest, Sacramento wasn't a whole lot different than Stockton," Rondinella said. "When you get a carrier like Southwest, it goes gangbusters."

When another air carrier comes to Stockton, it will be time to build a new terminal and perhaps create additional parking, he said.

The commercial side of the airport is just one picture. Beyond the scope of America West is the corporate aviation side of airport operations.

Dotting the back alley of the 1,500-acre airport are AG Spanos Jet Service, The Flight Center and Aero Turbine, to name a few. These companies offer services ranging from repair and maintenance to sales and aircraft hanger space. Several well-to-do business people from the Bay Area store their Cessnas and other high-end jets at Stockton for the reasonable rent, and the close proximity the Central Valley has to "everywhere," Rondinella said.

The main entrance area at the Stockton Metropolitan Airport. (Jerry Tyson/News-Sentinel)

Other folks working along the airport property are small-business owners who restore vintage airplanes or fly crop dusters. One of the airport tenants has a Quonset hut brimming with engine and body parts from planes, cars and bikes amid other mechanical trappings.

"Every airport has one of those guys - collectors," Rondinella said, as he drove through the gated airport property recently. "Airports are a magnet for interesting people. Interesting spelled bizarre. It spices things up."

The tour reveals the airport's own fire and police departments located in close proximity to the runway, and a California National Guard center behind tall barbed wire fence where rows of olive-drab military vehicles, including Chinook helicopters, rest.

Rondinella markets the business aviation aspect of the airport to pilots, manufacturers and distributors - anyone who uses air service in business. Cargo air plays a big role in the revenue picture as well, Rondinella said.

"We want the best passenger airport we can get, but from a bottom line standpoint, moving goods is where it's at," he said.

These groups keep the airport busier than most people would think, Rondinella said. They bring in generous revenue to the airport to the tune of nearly $1 million per year, which is roughly 20 percent of the airport's $6.5 million 2002-03 budget.

The airport, county owned since 1956, is considered an "enterprise fund" by county bean counters, which means it should be self-sufficient. Currently, the airport receives just under $800,000 from the county. Rondinella believes the airport will become fiscally self-sufficient in about three years.

"The county will reduce that figure to zero in the future," he said.

Increased commercial air and cargo travel will move the airport toward financial independence in the near future. Turning about 500 acres of the airport into an upscale business-industrial park will add to the coffers.

That's something Rondinella is pursuing with the county and a real estate group. Developing the surrounding land gives Rondinella yet one more hat to wear.

Higher paying jobs

The airport property has been identified as a No. 1 priority for business development in the county, according to the San Joaquin Council of Governments, whose aim is to oversee transportation and development.

That's one of the reasons why Rondinella, in addition to providing safe aviation at the airport, acts as landlord to the existing AirMetro Business Park, which houses about 20 businesses - most of them industrial in nature.

But there is more land to be developed, including 500 acres on the east side of the airport, just off Highway 99. The big chunk of land is slated to become two things:

• An air cargo outlet to house such companies as FedEx and UPS, and "fulfillment" companies, such as, which require massive storage buildings and quick access to air services to ship its Internet-purchased goods.

• An upscale business-industrial parkway.

The county has been in contract with a Chicago-based company, Orix Capital Group, to develop certain industries, including those involved in scientific research and development, electronic component building, call centers, and insurance and investment groups.

Essentially, the county is courting companies that pay high wages, which are defined as $45,000 per year or more. And the county hopes to avoid businesses that bring in high truck traffic that tend to be noise and air polluters.

"The parkway would be different from what has been built in San Joaquin County at present," said Mike Locke, president and chief executive officer of the San Joaquin Partnership, which acted as a liaison between the county and Orix.

"They would look more like the higher end parks you would see in the Bay Area."

The county's intends to create a high-value and high-wage base business environment on the property, Locke said.

The county would retain ownership of the land, and Orix would develop businesses and own the improvements, he said.

Buzz Oates Enterprise and Alex Spanos are scheduled to help develop the land as well.

The San Joaquin Partnership is a nonprofit, private-public economic development corporation that assists businesses to locate in the county. The airport property is just one of the group's many projects.

The group targets about 100 companies a year with a goal to get them to do business in the county, Locke said. The partnership has about a 25 percent success rate.

The design criteria for the airport business parkway is already in place, Locke said. Construction of the parkway is scheduled to go into full bloom in mid 2003 - it's a matter of Orix and the county completing their agreement. But Locke cautioned it could be as late as 2004 because of the current state economy.

"Probably the only additional spur is the completion of the Arch-Sperry, which is five years out," Locke said.

Building roads and bridges

The importance of the Arch-Sperry road connection cannot be understated. The expressway will connect Highway 99 and Interstate 5 with the airport as the center point.

Proponents of the expressway maintain that this is a pivotal project in the great airport master plan.

"It's very important to open up to California's commercial highway," Locke said, referring to Interstate 5. "That connection has been identified as the region's No. 1 priority, and continues to be lobbied at the federal level."

Pombo has been aggressive in moving the project forward in the Federal Department of Transportation, Locke said.

Sieglock agreed.

"He has taken significant interest in getting that area opened up," he said. "He recognizes the potential and has been a major player and proponent."

The $70 million Arch-Sperry Road project reached a milestone in late November when the Board of Supervisors adopted the master plan and a final environmental report. The county will take on most of the labor to get the road completed while working in conjunction with the city of Stockton, which owns the property.

Rondinella pointed to another bustling construction activity at Highway 99 known as the Arch Road interchange.

"That's going to help the airport development," he said.

The Arch Road overpass/offramp is being built to ease traffic congestion, and it will completely change the landscape.

First, Highway 99 will actually pass over Arch Road - one of three such designs in the Central Valley. Additionally, Arch Road will be complemented with public art, an attractive sound wall and a terraced slope. The California Department of Transportation and city of Stockton are building the $35 million project, which is scheduled for a 2005 completion date.

It can't happen too soon for the optimistic Rondinella, who predicts the airport and the business parkway is bound to take off as a bustling center.

"I don't know if it's going to happen in two years or 10," Rondinella said.

"Either way it's going to happen."

Comments about this story? Send mail to the News-Sentinel newsroom.


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