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Firm Ordered to Leave Van Nuys Airport

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A struggling mom-and-pop enterprise that turned a dilapidated World War II hangar into a booming business has been ordered to vacate city-owned Van Nuys Airport, with airport officials refusing to say why.

The impending eviction of Syncro Aircraft Interiors Inc., which turns out customized airplane interiors for royalty, entertainment stars and business moguls, has sent dozens of businesses around the airport into a tailspin, wondering about their own security as tenants.

In an unprecedented move, the Los Angeles Department of Airports on March 19 gave Syncro 60 days to move out of a three-acre hangar it has occupied for more than six years. The tersely worded notice gave no reasons for the eviction.

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Syncro owners Ed and Barbara Cesar say they are stunned by the action, which could virtually destroy the venture they have built since 1983. They have spent days pleading with airport officials, the mayor’s office, the city attorney and any other entity they can think of to try to salvage their enterprise, all to no avail.

“I can’t get crushed by this,” Ed Cesar said wearily, half to himself, on Friday. He still had not broken the news to his two dozen employees.

Like many of the tenants at Van Nuys Airport, Syncro holds a month-to-month lease. Airport commissioners have refused to grant long-term leases to all but a few tenants during the last decade while officials struggle to adopt a long-overdue master plan for the airport’s future.

Within the last two years, Syncro developed a lucrative side business in addition to remodeling private jets: renting space in its cavernous hangar as film stages. By providing working room for films such as “Batman and Robin” and “True Lies” and TV productions such as “Melrose Place,” the enterprise has become enormously successful, Cesar said, generating thousands of dollars in additional revenues monthly and several hundred jobs.

Pointing to stacks of correspondence, Barbara Cesar noted: “It’s been a real tough situation. We keep thinking somebody should pat us on the back and say, ‘Gee, guys, what a good job you’ve done.’ ”

Based on promises from the airport, the Cesars said, they have spent more than $500,000 for repairs to the 1940s-era hangar in addition to their $450,000 in rent over six years. After years of negotiations, airport officials in 1994 agreed to grant Syncro a five-year lease, according to internal airport department memos, but the agreement was never brought before the airport commission for approval. No explanation was given, Ed Cesar said.

Meanwhile, the Cesars said their concerted efforts to meet with top airport officials to discuss their problems have been largely ignored. “They seem to have this almighty power,” Ed Cesar said.

The termination notice, signed by Jerald Lee, DOA deputy executive director, on behalf of John J. Driscoll, executive director, cites no reason for the action.

Asked why the Cesars are being evicted, Lee said, “The city attorney advised us not to set forth any reasons because of anticipated litigation,” although no action has been filed by either the Cesars or the city.

Asked if other tenants face similar action, Lee said, “There may be a couple others in the near future.”

Bret Lobner, senior assistant city attorney for the airport department, also declined to comment on the Syncro eviction, saying only that Syncro’s lease allows termination with a 30-day notice.

But Lobner said he is not aware of pending action against other airport tenants. “There are no other notices to any other tenants, either prepared, contemplated or anything else that I know of,” he said. “We have not been consulted with regard to any other actions.”

News of the eviction has generated a wave of rumors and fear among other airport tenants, with many worrying they may be next. “We’re all just kind of tired of the game,” one longtime tenant said.

The concern has become so widespread within the last weeks that one anonymous writer has compiled a three-page flier summarizing airport rumors, distributed to airport businesses and neighbors. Titled “What’s Really Going On at the Van Nuys Airport?” the flier carries what it calls “bits and pieces of information” circulating around the airport.

On the Syncro eviction, for instance, some insiders allege that the company is being ousted because city airport officials want to reap the company’s filmmaking profits for the city. Others speculate that airport officials plan to turn over the giant hangar to a politically connected air charter operator that needs room to expand.

Van Nuys Airport officials declined to return calls from The Times, deferring questions instead to top airport department officials at Los Angeles International Airport. Those officials, in turn, did not respond to specific questions.

“As usual, we’re dealing in the dark when trying to get information from the DOA,” said Don Schultz, president of the Van Nuys Homeowners Assn. A veteran member of the citizens advisory council to the airport, Schultz said the department “treats Van Nuys as a stepchild” to its two major commercial airports--Los Angeles International and Ontario. “If we get a 10% return response on our recommendations, we’re lucky.”

Sander Winger, an advisory committee member who helped draft a 1987 moratorium on development that has since been used to justify the refusal to grant longer leases, said the control measure was never intended to block action indefinitely. The moratorium was supposed to end within two years, with the development of a master plan, but has been twice extended by the City Council when the department failed to come up with a master plan, he said.

“The DOA has procrastinated so many times, over so many issues. They are passing the buck,” Winger said. He accused airport officials of “blaming a lot of people for them not getting their job done. They just can’t get their act together.”

Many other airport tenants also tell tales of struggling to keep businesses alive without a lease, saying they cannot obtain financing or credit lines to make repairs or build their businesses.

“It just seems to be nobody is willing to make a decision,” said Dick Hart, owner of National Helicopter, one of the tenants of longest duration at the airport. The company, which has been based at the airport since 1963, has not had a long-term lease since 1987.

“It’s frustrating and difficult to make future plans unless you know where you’re going to be,” he said. “Time is passing; when do you draw the line?”

Some members of the department’s staff also are critical of its leadership. “There is just a total inability by management to make a decision,” said one seasoned administrator speaking on condition of anonymity.

“It’s been a long, long time” that the department has refused to grant leases, complained Mark Sullivan, owner of Skytrails, which rents hangar space for planes. “If somebody pays their rent and adheres to their obligations, they should not kick anybody out.”

Rohit Shukla, president of the Los Angeles Regional Technology Alliance--a nonprofit group devoted to promoting local technology-based businesses--called the troubles at Van Nuys Airport “potentially a legal minefield.” Saying his alliance supports the Cesars and other airport tenants in their dispute with the city, he accused airport officials, the city attorney and the mayor’s staff of a “supreme lack of understanding.”

Ed Cesar said his greatest frustration lies in his inability to persuade airport officials or the mayor’s representatives to sit down and explain the issues.

The mayor’s office, however, has announced it will not intercede. “The Department of Airports considered various issues regarding this lease and ultimately made this decision to end it,” said Steve Sugerman, deputy to Mayor Richard Riordan. “The mayor doesn’t believe in micro-managing these types of decisions.”


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