Rialto Airport destined to be a distant memory?

 - June 2, 2009, 11:40 AM

The planned closure of Rialto Municipal Airport, also known as Art Scholl Memorial Field, in southern California sometime next year means even fewer places for aircraft owners to base their airplanes and yet another community without the benefits of a vibrant airport. Plans call for Lewis-Hillwood Rialto to build a mixed-use housing and office development on the airport’s 453 acres. Lewis-Hillwood is a joint venture of The Lewis Operating Companies and Hillwood, a developer owned by Ross Perot Company.

One odd wrinkle in the plan to close Art Scholl Field is that Hillwood and the Perot family are experts at airport development, having pumped new life into Fort Worth Alliance Airport north of Fort Worth, Texas. Since the groundbreaking in 1998, Hillwood has helped build extensive aviation, industrial, housing and entertainment facilities on and around Alliance Airport, suggesting that the Perot family appreciates the benefits of a robust community airport.

Yet when the subject of closing Art Scholl Field came up, only a few voices, like that of FBO owner Judy Scholl, wife of famed aerobatic pilot Art Scholl (who died while filming the movie Top Gun), and the owners of Western Helicopters and other airport tenants emerged to try to stop the political steamroller that backed Lewis-Hillwood’s plans. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association also tried to help, but with no success because the political effort included legislation that relieved the city of Rialto from its obligation to repay $15 million worth of federal funds used to improve the airport over the years.

The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users was highway funding legislation. Included in the act was a section (4408) that stated that Congress found that “the closure of Rialto Municipal Airport ‘shall be in compliance with applicable federal laws and regulations…and that the United States releases all restrictions, conditions and limitations on the use, encumbrance, conveyance or closure of the Rialto Municipal Airport.’” The result is that the city can shut down its airport and sell the land to Lewis-Hillwood and move all the tenants to nearby San Bernardino International Airport.

There is some dispute among airport tenants about who will pay how much to move them to San Bernardino and whether the cost of leasing new facilities is included. According to Rialto redevelopment director Robb Steel, “Under the law in California, we have to pay to physically move them.” There may be funds to help the companies re-establish their businesses at San Bernardino, but the city has no obligation to build new hangars for the tenants, he said. However, part of the money from the sale of the property will be set aside to help pay for new facilities.

When the city was trying to figure out what to do with the airport, the development agency made no effort to attract companies that might value an airport. “When I got here in 2001,” Steel said, “the city council was trying to decide if it would keep the airport. I’m [in] the economic development agency, and I was never involved in trying to market the airport.”

The city council had already made its decision, based on a consultant’s analysis of the general aviation marketplace. Traffic at Rialto peaked at about 200,000 movements per year in the early 1990s and has since dropped to fewer than 30,000, which is estimated to be 13 to 17 percent of the airport’s capacity. Projections in the consultant’s report showed that if it opted to keep the airport open, the city would continue to lose millions of dollars. “Ultimately the council decided to sell the airport,” Steel said.

In a telling conclusion, the consultant summarized, “Rialto’s current and projected demographic characteristics are not conducive to GA [general aviation] support,” a subtle way of saying that the area’s citizens do not earn enough to own and use aircraft and fly enough to justify keeping the airport open. “We’re not an affluent community,” agreed Steel. “We’re sort of lower middle class, and there’s much more benefit from the alternate uses [of the land].” Another factor was the conversion of Norton AFB to a civil airport in San Bernardino.

A recent visit to Rialto Airport revealed that the city is neglecting the property, although the two runways (4,500 feet and 2,644 feet) are still in decent shape. Of the 180 tiedowns, only a few dozen are occupied, and most of the 157 hangars are being used for non-aviation purposes. Buildings on the airport are in poor shape, why invest in a dying airport?

The current schedule for the Lewis-Hillwood development is for the project plan to be approved this year, which could mean that tenants would have to move about a year later, according to Steel. But the economy, which has been the key factor in the lack of aviation activity at the airport and the city of Rialto’s decision to close the airport, might delay the closing of the airport even longer. Housing prices in the Rialto area are down 50 percent, and for the time being “it’s non-economic for builders to build,” he said.