A Bolt From the Blue : A 4-Year Effort to Turn Norton Air Force Base Into a Civilian Airport May Be Grounded by an 11th-Hour Bid to Create a Huge Homeless Aid Center


As communities throughout the country wrestle with the closure of military bases, they might well have envied how efficiently and cleanly the conversion of an Air Force base to a civilian airport seemed to be proceeding here.

But now they should also consider how the best-laid plans of politicians and civic leaders can take a sudden, unexpected nose-dive. Because someone else in town, it turns out, wants to turn the base into the nation's largest homeless assistance center and has the federal government's ear.

"It's hard to conceive," says Trevor Van Horn, the frustrated executive director of the would-be airport, "that we've spent four years planning this, spent $11 million, and someone could come in at the 11th hour and, with no financial support and no master planning, make (a competing) application for the base."

And by law, that opposing request will receive priority consideration over the longer-established airport plans because of congressional direction that providers of services for the homeless be given first crack at surplus military bases.

Until a few weeks ago, community leaders here believed, for good reason, that they were in line to take control of Norton Air Force Base and turn it into a "crown jewel of the region's economic renewal," as one local official gushes.

The closure of the 51-year-old base hit the area hard because it employed 10,000 people, including 4,000 civilian workers. But rather than kick and scream when Norton's closure was announced in 1988, community leaders started immediately planning to convert the 2,000-acre base and its 10,000-foot-long runway into an international airport.

Planners talked of commercial passenger service, worldwide cargo operations and leasing part of the base to businesses that would range from the deployment from 747s of communication satellites to the conversion of gasoline engines to compressed natural gas.

Within 10 years, according to projections, the new San Bernardino International Airport would generate more money for the region than the Air Force ever did, and there would be no more regrets over the loss of Norton.

But like some bogey suddenly appearing from behind the clouds, a small charity organization named Western Eagle set its sights on Norton Air Force Base just this summer. Its mission: turning Norton into the nation's largest job skills trainer, employer, feeder and lodger of homeless people.

Until now, 2-year-old Western Eagle has been little more than a volunteer-run food bank, accepting groceries and other bulk food donations from grocery stores, local manufacturers and farmers, then offering them to more than 30 church, community and other organizations that help feed the poor in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

By its own measure, Western Eagle stores and distributes about 30,000 pounds of food a week through its network of provider organizations--each of which pays $25 a week to Western Eagle to help pay the charity's office and utility costs.

"They're big time," Mike DiMillo of the nonprofit Hemet Food Center said of Western Eagle. "Last month we provided 22,000 meals, and the bulk of the food came from Western Eagle."

Western Eagle recently moved from Riverside to larger facilities in San Bernardino. But it had little thought of major expansion until it learned that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in June listed Norton Air Force Base as a suitable site for a homeless facility in accordance with Title V of the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987.

That law requires the Department of Defense to give homeless assistance organizations priority consideration to use closed military bases. Qualified nonprofit organizations can apply to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to use the surplus bases, which Western Eagle did on July 2.

Unlike about 40 other homeless service providers around the country that have won access to portions of former military bases--barracks, office buildings or warehouses--to operate their programs, Western Eagle says it can use all of Norton, including the runway, from which it wants to fly humanitarian missions worldwide.

Several government officials who work on McKinney Act implementation said they don't know of any proposals as grand as Western Eagle's.

Western Eagle is in the process of meeting an Oct. 27 deadline to complete the application. If the Department of Health and Human Services blesses Western Eagle's efforts, the Air Force Base Disposal Agency is expected by law to grant the request.

It has the option of denying the request, but then must explain to Congress why the homeless proposal was not in the best public interest, said Rayford Kytle, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services.

The Air Force Base Disposal Agency is aware of the competing interests for Norton, and a spokeswoman said that if Western Eagle's application is approved, the agency would try hard to negotiate a compromise.

Is it realistic for Western Eagle to argue that it can use all of Norton? "That's just a start for us," said Tom Huff, one of the organization's head volunteers and a man who is experienced in various worldwide philanthropies, including private humanitarian missions in Russia.

Western Eagle leaders say they've already won a commitment from a retired Salt Lake City attorney to use virtually every warehouse on base to manufacture and distribute a food supplement that he claims will not only help nourish the hungry but even control the symptoms of AIDS.

The attorney, William F. Kralik, refuses to reveal the details of his program but maintains that he has access to virtually unlimited financial resources--"billions," he says--to bankroll his food-supplement packaging and distribution program.

Kralik claims that his program would eventually employ 45,000 people at Norton alone--and that he is trying to secure other sites around the nation to expand beyond that scope.

Western Eagle's executive director, Kathleen Kruger, and its president, Robert Sieja, said Kralik's proposal is the largest, but not the only, proposed use for Norton that will allow the training and employment of homeless people.

Among other potential tenants enlisted in the past few weeks, they said, are a company that wants to build and operate a trash-burning, co-generation power plant; a pharmaceutical manufacturer that needs distribution facilities and a fruit dehydration and canning operation.

Lockheed, which currently operates a refurbishing facility for 747s at Norton, could stay, they say, and prospective tenants who already have been contacted by the airport authority to operate out of Norton would be invited as well. Additionally, 2,000 homeless people could live in Norton's housing units, and its residents could be trained in security and hotel operations.

"We will offer a two-year self-esteem, personal development, child-care and job-training program so these people will never be homeless again," Huff said. "We've been told by Health and Human Services that nobody has tried to tackle something this big. We can change the way America deals with the homeless."

Kruger admits there are obstacles. "The problem is we're the new kids on the block," she said. We've only been trying to get this base since July, and everyone else has had since 1988."

Everyone else, in this case, is the 1 1/2-year-old San Bernardino International Airport Authority, which evolved out of a committee formed in 1989 to study the reuse of Norton.

Operating on borrowed funds from the Inland Valley Development Agency, the airport group--headed by seven elected officials from nearby cities and the County of San Bernardino--made formal application in July, 1992, for a free, 55-year lease of Norton as a commercial, mixed-use airport.

But because of Western Eagle's competing application, the Air Force Base Disposal Agency this month offered the airport group only a 90-day lease so it could meet a deadline to apply for a $20-million Federal Aviation Administration airport development grant.

On Monday, U.S. Rep. George E. Brown (D-San Bernardino) announced that Norton had indeed qualified for the FAA grant and would likely receive $2.7 million in first-year start-up costs, and ultimately might get up to $15 million.

Consistent with other local politicians' attitudes toward Western Eagle, Brown made no mention in his announcement of the FAA grant of the competing application by the charity group. Brown was perplexed by Western Eagle's application, said his spokesman, Bill Grady.

Swen Larson, the authority president, says he is gratified that the airport authority has, at least for now, been given $1 billion in base facilities from the Air Force. And he does not like discussing the possibility that his dream might be blindsided by Western Eagle.

"We accept the fact that (Norton's destiny) has to go through the application review process, and we just have to bide our time," he said.

Tom Minor, San Bernardino mayor, said he is skeptical that Western Eagle can pull off its plans. Nonetheless, they may jeopardize the economic development promises of a new airport. he said.

"They're a Johnny-come-lately who has thrown in a monkey wrench," Minor said, "and I'm a little concerned."

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