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Executives Launch Drive to Find New Airport Site

Times Staff Writer

Less than two months after the first phase of an expansion plan at John Wayne Airport increased jet service to 55 flights a day, a cadre of influential businessmen has launched an independent campaign to help meet Orange County’s demand for worldwide air transportation through the next century.

A committee of executives from some of the county’s largest corporations has been organized through the Industrial League of Orange County with the goal of finding a site for a new airport and providing some of the financial resources and political muscle necessary to make it a reality, league president Ralph Clock said this week.

“We of the Industrial League recognize that John Wayne is a fait accompli now. The only question now is are we going to get 73 flights or are we going to stay at 55? Yet everyone realizes that it will not meet the needs of the air-traveling public of the next century,” Clock said.

“A number of CEOs (chief executive officers) of major corporations who are headquartered here have all indicated their willingness to support an effort to put together a major study which would help identify what we’re going to do to meet the needs of the traveling public of Orange County for the 21st Century,” he said, adding: “We recognize now that we’re no longer talking about an alternate airport site; it’s an additional airport site.”

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The committee is composed of “10 to 12" executives, Clock said, and is headed by William Lusk, vice chairman of the board of John Lusk and Sons, a major home-building firm. Other companies reportedly represented include Baker International, the Irvine Co., C.J. Segerstrom and Sons and Odetics Inc.

The Industrial League itself represents 700 companies with a total employment of about 125,000.

Proposal Shelved

The latest effort follows more than a decade of government studies aimed at finding an alternative airport site, all of which have been repeatedly ruled out for practical or political reasons. A committee of top-level businessmen appointed by the Board of Supervisors in 1982 recommended a new airport in Santiago Canyon on the county’s eastern border, a proposal that was quickly shelved, largely because of potential airspace conflicts with Ontario.

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Committee members said their aim now is to build a partnership with government at all levels----from the federal government to Orange County’s 26 cities----to agree on a solution and pursue it jointly.

“I think it’s an item that is of sufficient magnitude that for any group to tackle the problem without doing it in concert and in harmony and with the understanding of everybody else, to me, is not going to work,” said E.H. Clark Jr., chairman of the board of Baker International, an oil service firm headquartered in Orange.

“But you can’t sit and fight over John Wayne forever and not look toward what the ultimate solution is,” Clark said. “You’re going to have a major population and industrial base here in Orange County, and I think you’re going to have to have some kind of airport service that faces the question of intercontinental and transcontinental service in addition to regional service.”

While other committee members have said an additional airport is the “obvious” solution to the demand, Clark said the committee has not yet settled on anything. “We may find that an enormous shuttle service to LAX is the only way,” he said. “What we’re saying, though, is let’s keep that long-range look and let’s keep the pressure on ourselves to get that long-range help before it’s too late.”

Recommendation by November

Clock said the committee has discussed, in the short-term, raising the $20,000 needed to consolidate past airport site studies for review by the county Airport Commission this summer. As part of the John Wayne Airport master plan adopted by the Board of Supervisors earlier this year, the commission is supposed to make a recommendation on the potential for a new airport site by November, though a court order halting implementation of the master plan has tentatively suspended the county’s site search.

Clock said it is likely the committee will eventually hire its own consultants and will also work with a joint powers authority of Orange County cities to promote additional studies.

“We’re talking about getting funding from the federal government and token donations from some of the major corporations as an indication of their support for and their commitment to this effort,” Clock said. “It’s a major, major undertaking. But the longest journey starts with a single step, so that’s what we’re doing now.”

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Thomas F. Riley, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, recently wrote the Airport Commission and recommended that the panel take advantage of private interest in finding a new airport site. He said he is “optimistic” that the committee would be more successful than past groups tackling the airport problem, including the blue-ribbon panel of businessmen appointed by the Board of Supervisors, which he said was hampered by each board member’s “individual agendas.”

“I feel that the men involved in this are going to be men whose homes are in the impacted area, and their ability to manage their industry is also somewhat dependent on an airport site,” Riley said.

Political Support

Privately, a number of county officials also said one of the committee’s most valuable functions might be to help win political support in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., for an airport site, if one is selected.

But Supervisor Bruce Nestande, whose district includes the Santiago Canyon site recommended by the blue-ribbon committee, said local political support is even more important. “You can sit back in an ivory tower with an ad hoc group and come up with all kinds of alternate airport sites, rather than dealing with the political realities,” he said.

“An issue like this that’s so highly charged with emotion, a blue-ribbon committee’s action cannot always focus on the issue of public acceptance, and that is a vital part in the decision-making process.”

While the Irvine Co.--which owns property in Santiago Canyon identified for acquisition as an airport site--was not part of the original blue-ribbon panel, company representative Robert Shelton, a member of the Industrial League’s board of directors, said he has attended the most recent round of meetings and expects to be a participant.

‘Embryonic Effort’

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“The effort is embryonic at this point, but certainly well-intentioned, to try to be a resource to the public agencies and the public as a whole in dealing with the solution sooner as opposed to later,” he said.

“It’s probably true that the business community, however organized, has not in a serious and systematic and continuing way tried to deal with this. It’s been more often a reactive role to a specific question, rather than an effort to be constructive in helping to identify alternatives and resolve them,” Shelton said. “I think what’s being thought about now is a broader-based, more long-term and more intensive look at the situation with some initiatives coming from the private sector, rather than exclusively by invitation of government.”


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