No matter what the county does, El Toro will never make any money—unless it's as an airport. It's Guatemala without the death squads, the Middle Ages without the Black Plague. It's backward, decrepit and useless.
At least, that's the sense you get listening to Gary Simon, the county's El Toro program manager. Speaking to the county Board of Supervisors on June 13, Simon said the costs of merely keeping the base open—pegged earlier at $5 million—had risen dramatically to $6.8 million.
This utterly pessimistic assessment shouldn't have shocked anyone. This was former County Executive Officer Jan Mittermeier's strategy: to make El Toro look like a financial basket case for anything other than use as an airport. The irony is that during the Mittermeier regime, Simon, then the county's El Toro real-estate manager, chafed under that policy. County sources familiar with El Toro say Simon worked diligently to get as much of the base reused as possible. That may have been what led Mittermeier to fire him in January 2000. Now Mittermeier is gone, and Simon is in charge of El Toro. But the Mittermeier strategy of badmouthing El Toro hasn't changed a bit.
It's a strategy that flies in the face of the facts. When the Marines mustered and marched out of El Toro on July 2, 1999, county officials were euphoric. They predicted millions of dollars in profits from interim public use of base facilities. Not only have those profits not materialized, but each year, the county also continues to sink millions of taxpayer dollars into the base just to keep the weeds from pushing up the asphalt.
What happened to the sense of optimism? It's buried deep within the files of the county El Toro program office. There, a report dated Nov. 3, 1999, and titled "Final—Base Transition Plan" outlines two potential non-aviation reuse plans for El Toro. The first, adopted by the county as its official transition plan, anticipates a little more than $20 million in net profit over the next 15 years. The second, an expansion of the first, predicts $293 million in profits from leasing 110 base buildings over the next 15 years.
But that alternative plan never made it beyond the report, and no one at the June 13 hearing said anything about it. Instead, supervisors reached a rare agreement by casting blame on the U.S. Navy. "We need to look the Navy in the eye and say the base turned out to be a money pit," said Third District Supervisor Todd Spitzer at the supervisors' June 13 budget hearing. First District Supervisor Chuck Smith said the slow-moving Navy has done nothing because their feet "are encased in concrete." Fifth District Supervisor Tom Wilson agreed, saying El Toro has turned out to be a "lemon."
The Navy is an easy target: they've got big ships, and their officers wear nice crisp uniforms. But they abandoned El Toro because they found the base, then 57 years old, obsolete and unnecessary to the national defense.
It's more difficult to attack the men and women in gray flannel who are truly responsible for the failures of El Toro reuse policy: county officials who continue to ignore Alternative 2.
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It's hardly top secret. Alternative 2 first emerged as big news a year ago when the county reluctantly released it following a public records request by the South County cities opposed to the airport. Its list of 110 buildings slated for reuse appeared in The Orange County Register. But county officials—following the Mittermeier strategy—responded that detailed building analyses had showed Alternative 2 was flawed, that it wasn't feasible to reuse that many buildings. Alternative 2 was summarily buried.
But a county official familiar with El Toro who insisted on anonymity told the OC Weekly that no such "detailed analyses" existed. The county really had no idea what it would cost to retrofit any of El Toro's buildings.
Though it promised high-end profits from the reuse of base buildings, even Alternative 2 didn't go far enough: it said nothing of El Toro's more than 1,000 apartment and single-family housing units. Wilson has expended considerable energy—without success—trying to get the county to open these units as low-income housing. Official explanations will refer you to the nonexistent "detailed analyses," but there's a more compelling political reason to block use of base housing: state law provides that just 12 registered voters living on the base would be enough to block its reuse as an airport.
Clearly, the county has stacked the deck against profitable non-aviation reuse of El Toro, shifting the blame each time some new loss figure comes out. Once, it was the inability to sell alcohol at the old Officers' Club. Then it was the failure to get a master lease from the Navy allowing the county to take possession of the entire base. The county has jumped both hurdles, yet it continues to pour millions into the base with no expectation of a profit.