By David James Heiss
Zachary Rutledge, an aviation salesman and a recreational pilot who flies primarily out of Redlands Municipal Airport, wouldn’t notice if Banning was no longer available as an option for him to fly into.
“I’ve probably flown into Banning maybe twice in the past 10 years,” he estimates. “What drives people to small airports is, if they have a nice cafe, or restaurants, like they do in Upland — and even that’s minimal” after considering the cost of fuel for “a $15 meal.”
“Small airports are there to serve indirect air transportation, like Banning, Redlands, Big Bear and San Bernardino, which feed Ontario. Banning doesn’t really have a lot of wealth; it’s not a destination drive — people might fly in for the casino, but they don’t have your typical high rollers going through Banning,” he guesses.
The site’s lack of appeal, and tough economic times, have forced the City of Banning, which operates the Banning Municipal Airport, to seek a developer who can come in and find a use for the property — perhaps, as a trendy logistics center.
During the city council’s Nov. 13 meeting, they took the initial steps by approving an exclusive negotiation agreement with Moreno Valley-based Highland Fairview Holdings, S.A., LLC, to explore new uses for the airport, which was certified in 1945.
The process, if successful, would not happen overnight, and essentially began with the city’s distribution of a request for proposals in February, inviting agencies to devise plans on how to revamp 186 acres of land.
While the airport is small, with two employees who run everything from the dispatches to maintenance, it isn’t a dormant airport: there are 21 “older” hangars, and 31 “newer” ones that are consistently used; and in 2011 there were 2,086 landings, 2,070 take-offs, and 512 “touch and go’s,” according to airport manager Carl Szoyka.
The city’s revenues from the airport — which is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and does not have a cafe or restaurant — are minimal, and it does not collect landing fees.
“In light of the tough economy, we’ve opted to get a developer, rather than an airport developer, to come up with a way to do something to create jobs,” said councilman Bob Botts. “This didn’t happen overnight. We’ve been working on this for some time.”
City attorney Dave Aleshire told the council that, since the airport has received FAA grants and government funding, and since the Morongo Band of Mission Indians owns property around the airport — complicated with what will take some prolonged environmental analysis — “the project and the land parcels to be used hasn’t been determined yet; or how the multi-phase project would be phased in, nor is there any kind of timeframe.”
The decision comes following the city’s approval in September to pay San Diego-based C & S Companies $88,824 to relocate a fueling station at the airport.
City manager Andy Takata said that “We’d be lucky to see anything start — optimistically — within four years. Decommissioning an airport would be lengthy.”
Highland Fairview beat two other qualifying professional development firms, Messenger Investment Company (in partnership with the Rockefeller Development Group Corporation) and Searles Company.
According to the city’s analysis, “The ultimate goal of the proposed project is to provide economic and employment opportunities for the community, while maintaining high standards of development and environmental protections,” and anticipates Highland Fairview will “provide a land use infrastructure plan that will support the creation of a major job center in Banning; establish Banning as a prime location for the logistics industry; enhance the city’s fiscal viability, economic expansion; improve the city’s jobs-to-housing balance; and create thousands of local construction jobs during the project’s build-out phase.”