Interim Misuse

July 4 was supposed to be something special for county officials, the day on which they would see the first commercial cargo flight at El Toro. If all went according to plan, just 48 hours would pass between the last Marine marching off the base and the premier operation at El Toro International Airport.

The county called it "interim cargo use." Defined as any use of the base between the county's taking control and the opening of the new airport in 2005, airport shogun George Argyros has promoted interim use for five years as a way to "meet our demand" for air cargo. Some boosters even emphasized their case by inventing the "fact" that Orange County loses $4.9 billion per year because it lacks proper air-cargo facilities. But the demand was never there—when county officials asked air-cargo companies to reveal their Big Picture for El Toro, only sheepish, half-hearted plans for a few arrivals and departures per day trickled in.

Now even the dream of an Independence Day Cargo Party is dead. Airport opponents warned county officials they would have to conduct a full environmental review of any interim cargo flights at El Toro. The county balked; the opposition threatened another lawsuit. Now county officials say no one should expect any cargo operations at El Toro until next year.

But that hasn't stopped the county from trying to milk the interim-use cow. "Interim Use Could Generate Revenue and Jobs," reads a headline in the county's latest El Toro newsletter. Wow—interim use "could" make money! Oh, boy! County officials must have felt their argument was already so strong they didn't need to mention that interim-use "could" also generate carbon dioxide for all that parkland that will surround the new airport.

"Given flexibility," says El Toro program manager Courtney Wiercioch in the newsletter, "we expect to be able to generate millions of dollars in annual revenue and hundreds of jobs by leasing out this property."

That's hard to believe. The newsletter article mentions just two bright ideas: bringing high-tech firms into a few old base buildings (as a kind of low-rent district for struggling companies) and turning aircraft hangars into soundstages. Neither use sounds like a potential windfall.

An April 27 report to the county Board of Supervisors on interim use is even less encouraging. The report—filed by the supes with little comment—outlines such "potential" interim uses as a general aviation-repair shop, a Sheriff's Department hangar and a sky-diving training center and landing zone.

Clearly, interim use isn't the big (or little) success airport boosters hoped for. Airport opponents have known it for a long time. But now the boosters know it, too, which is why they're giving Wiercioch a new job description: scapegoat. A May 13 Los Angeles Times story quoted one unnamed airport supporter saying, "It's easy to dump on Courtney, but you don't put a 37-year-old former executive assistant to Tom Riley in charge of the largest land-use project in Orange County."

We've never been a fan of her work as program manager, but we also know blaming her for the interim-use disaster is a bum rap. After all, Wiercioch has a boss: El Toro program executive director (and county CEO) Jan Mittermeier.


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