C-17 Squeeze : McDonnell Douglas Expansion Means Displacement of 9 Small Firms at L. B. Airport

Times Staff Writer

The news reverberated through this city like a sonic boom--the giant McDonnell Douglas Corp. had landed a long-coveted, $3.39-billion contract to develop the C-17 military cargo plane.

For Long Beach, where the plane is to be built, the contract Promises to Be an econoMic bonanza, pumping millions of dollars into the local economy while providing an estimated 10,000 new jobs.

To accommodate work on the C-17, McDonnell Douglas officials announced plans in early January to expand the firm's Douglas Aircraft plant adjacent to Long Beach Airport. The $150-million expansion, expected to begin in April, represents the biggest spurt of growth at the plant since the late 1960s.

But despite all the hoopla surrounding the C-17, there may be casualties.

The expansion will displace a handful of tiny aircraft businesses on the airport's western edge, forcing them to relocate or in some cases perhaps shut down for good.

"It looks like I'm out," said Louis Rigo, 59, a fixture at Long Beach Airport since he opened his aircraft maintenance business in 1949. "I can't say I'm bitter. Still, it looks like maybe I might basically lose everything I worked for since I've been on this airport."

Like Rigo's firm, most of the nine businesses being squeezed out by McDonnell Douglas are mom-and-pop outfits housed in a ragtag row of cramped aluminum hangars that evoke memories of a bygone day.

Looming Threat of Eviction

For many of the businessmen, the looming threat of eviction represents just another phase in the metamorphosis of Long Beach Airport from an airstrip for small planes to a regional facility catering to commercial airlines and corporate giants like Douglas.

"To me it's like the death of an era," said Tom Jacobson, owner of an aircraft maintenance firm on the airport's western edge. "They're moving all the little people who work on the little planes."

Moreover, some of the business owners speculate that fiscal belt-tightening in Washington and mounting pressure to cut defense spending could dash Douglas' dream of ever building the C-17. In that event, the Douglas expansion--and the painful relocation forced on its victims--will have been pointless, they say.

"The way things are in Washington, there may not be many C-17s actually built," said Jerry Forston, who fears his aircraft modification business--located next to an area Douglas plans to acquire--will fall prey to the expansion. "Douglas may be taking more property than they'll really ever need."

McDonnell Douglas officials, however, say they are confident that the C-17s will be built. Beyond that, both city officials and company spokesmen say, the firm is no tyrannical Goliath.

Douglas officials contend they have worked hard to ease the pain caused by the expansion, assisting the displaced businessmen in an effort to find new quarters at Long Beach Airport or elsewhere in Southern California.

"We realize it's a hard thing for some of the small business owners to move," said David Eastman, a Douglas spokesman. "They certainly have a place at the airport. That's why we're trying to work with them."

Eastman also noted that the business owners have had ample time to prepare for the move. Douglas made it clear back in 1981 that it planned to expand on the airport's west side to make room for production of the C-17, he said.

Expansion No Surprise

"It's not just something that came out of nowhere," Eastman said. "We started talking about this several years ago."

As yet, no production contracts have been awarded for the C-17, but Douglas officials anticipate that the firm will eventually build 210 of the cargo jets at a cost of $37.8 billion. That price tag would make it one of the most expensive military aircraft projects in history.

The Air Force is expected to take delivery of the first planes in 1992, with production extending through 1998, Douglas officials say. To handle the job, the Long Beach division's work force will increase from the current 17,000 employees to about 27,000 by 1991, company officials said.

While Douglas plans to enlarge or construct a spate of buildings on its property north of the airport, the bulk of the expansion will take place on the airport's west side.

In that area, an existing 250,000-square-foot structure just south of Wardlow Road will be enlarged to more than 1 million square feet to serve as the site for final assembly of the C-17. To make room for the enlarged structure, originally built for the assembly of DC-10 jets, Douglas wants to buy or lease about 36 acres surrounding the building.

The land, most of it owned by the city and rented to small businessmen like Rigo, is slated to be used primarily for parking. Negotiations on acquisition of the property are expected to be complete in about a month, according to Roger Anderman, the city's development bureau manager. So far, none of the tenants have received eviction notices.

City officials say they are pleased with the Douglas plans.

"We're all very elated," Mayor Ernie Kell said. "This will be an unbelievable boost for the area's economy And work force. It's not very often that a city gets an influx of new jobs like this."

But for businessmen like Rigo, the situation appears all too dreary.

Rigo has sought new hangar space at the airport, but has balked at moving because the monthly rent is several times what he pays now.

"Moving has been a possibility all along if I was John D. Rockefeller," Rigo said. "Unfortunately, I don't seem to have the money to pay those rents."

Jacobson agreed, saying that newer hangars on the other side of the airport fetch rents of up to $8,000 a month, five times his current monthly bill of $1,600.

"I came here because I couldn't afford to go anywhere else," he said. "If I have to leave, I'll have just two choices--move to another airfield, which I don't want to do, or get another job, which I also don't want to do."

Others, meanwhile, are biding their time and hoping their business won't be roiled by the expansion.

"I'm not going to panic yet," said Frank Strobel, whose small airfreight firm delivers newspapers, produce and packages to Catalina Island with a 1942 Grumman Goose seaplane. "I don't know what I'll do if next week they send me a get-out notice. That's going to cause me some concern."

Some of the airport businessmen, however, say they will be little affected by the move.

William Moody, chairman of the Phalanx Organization, a fledgling aerospace firm attempting to develop a new type of hover jet, said the Douglas expansion comes at a time when his company needed to move so it can enlarge its own working area.

'Just Part of Business'

"It's just part of business," Moody said. "Douglas needs to expand to meet the requirements of the C-17 program. We have to have three to five acres to meet our needs. So we move."

Paul Stief, manager of an airfreight firm that operates out of Los Angeles International Airport but maintains its maintenance facility in Long Beach, said his company can relocate relatively easily if necessary.

Stief said he is sorry for the airport businessmen being forced out, but understands the need for Douglas to expand.

"If one weighs the two sides against one another economically, Douglas certainly has a lot more going for it than us little guys," Stief said. "They've got the jobs and the big payroll. If you look at the big picture, they're the one's doing all the good here."

That, however, is little consolation to Rigo, who fears he will be forced to close his business because of the expansion.

"If I was younger, I would be more disappointed than I am now," he said. "I'm too old to start over with something new and too young to get on the darn retirement gravy train.

"I'll probably just close up and go into some other field so I can put beans on the table."

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