Victorville Planning Inland Port

Times Staff Writer

City officials have teamed up with a real estate developer on an ambitious plan to redevelop the former George Air Force Base here into an inland port to handle air cargo and rail freight currently routed through Los Angeles.

Instead of flying into crowded Los Angeles International Airport, planners envision international cargo planes unloading shipments about 70 miles northeast in Victorville, where it would be redistributed to other parts of the country by rail and truck. Moreover, they hope imported automobiles will be unloaded from ships at Long Beach and Los Angeles ports and put directly onto rail cars to transport them to the Victorville distribution complex.

In all, the project is expected to cost $1.5 billion over the next decade, most of it privately funded, although tax revenues from new airport businesses and city bonds will help pay for infrastructure improvements.

"Within 10 years Victorville will become a major hub, a secondary gateway to Los Angeles and San Francisco," said Dougall Agan , an Orange County developer who is leading the Victorville project. Agan's firm Stirling International developed the 3,000-acre Foothill Ranch master planned community in southern Orange County.

The project could represent a major economic shot in the arm for Victorville and the surrounding communities, which lost 16,000 jobs after the base closure. The renamed Southern California Logistics Airport is now one of the world's biggest aircraft graveyards where airlines park their unused jets. The site is home to two dozen businesses employing about 2,000 people, most of them handling aircraft maintenance and development.

But Victorville faces stiff competition from two other Inland Empire communities where local officials also are trying to turn their shuttered military bases into industrial centers. Officials in Riverside recently finished a multimillion-dollar road and runway improvement to March Air Reserve Base near Moreno Valley, hoping to draw a cargo carrier. At the former Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino, officials have signed Kohl's Corp., a clothing retailer, to set up a distribution center.

Moreover, these former military bases face their biggest challenge from Ontario International Airport, already home to one of the largest hubs for United Parcel Service. Ontario officials have been courting additional cargo carriers.

All these airports are basing their business plans on projections that air cargo handled by Southern California airports could triple to 9.5 million tons a year during the next two decades.

But Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., warns the competing airports could be in for a rude awakening. "I don't think there will be enough demand to support all of them," he said.

Officials with Los Angeles World Airports, which operates LAX and Ontario, said growing demand for cargo services is likely to shift first to Ontario, which is closer to seaports and more developed than the former military airports. But the agency said there will be room for other airports to benefit because even conservative projections have demand outstripping capacity at both LAX and Ontario.

Victorville has been aggressively focused on setting itself apart from other airports, noting how 60% of all goods traveling out of the state move along the adjacent I-15 corridor. Land in Victorville is also cheaper -- about a third less than in Ontario -- and more large tracts are available.

To entice more business, Victorville has been extending the airport runways so it can handle the world's largest cargo planes.

A Burlington Northern rail line already passes by the site. Last summer, Victorville lured the Pasha Group, a transportation services company, which announced it would build a $50-million, 700-acre logistics and distribution complex with a massive rail and truck yard. Pasha envisions eventually handling 125,000 autos a year at its redistribution facility.

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