El Toro Airport Watch

It is a fact that the County plans to build a massive international airport at El Toro in which commercial airliners will arrive and depart 24 hours per day.

The county's still-unapproved Environmental Impact Report (EIR) makes this explicit: 300,574 proposed flights per year, or roughly 411.7 flights per day. That's every day, all day, all night. The county even broke this number down further, estimating 137.4 arrivals and 129.4 departures at night. These figures dwarf annual operations at John Wayne Airport, which ends its operations at 11 p.m. every night.

There is no way airport boosters can reconcile these facts with their public claims that the county will only build a “John Wayne-sized” airport with a ban on nighttime flights at El Toro. Undaunted, the County Board of Supervisors—now two years behind schedule in approving the new El Toro EIR—just voted to try to do exactly that by paying an astonishing $3 million to Irvine-based Amies Communications for a brand-new “El Toro public-information program.”

Considering the size and cost of the contract, the scope of work is surprisingly vague, spelling out two central directives for Amies in thoroughly misleading corporate-speak: “communicate factual data” and “encourage public participation.”

The program calls for constructing an El Toro Visitor's Center at the base itself, housing reuse information, Marine Corps history, a new El Toro website and a program logo. In addition, there would be a speakers' bureau and a standard package of mailers, brochures and newsletters. The company also wants to develop and distribute something called a “CD-ROM Business Card” that contains all their slick promotional materials in electronic form.

Further down the proposal is a call for “re-establishing relationships with the media,” “developing a proactive media-relations program” and “creating and coordinate [sic] media events, news releases and articles.” Promotional materials posted on Amies' website provide a colorful glimpse into what reporters have in store for them. On a page titled “Keys to Media Interviews,” Amies offers that spokespeople should be “as open, frank and engaging as possible without revealing any sensitive issues.” Spokespeople should also be “prepared to 'turn' questions to your liking” and always remember that an “energized voice makes you sound enthusiastic and sincere about your company and its projects.”

In case all this sounds familiar, it's because the county already went down the public relations-firm road three years ago. Back in 1997, the county spent $326,010—a tenth of what Amies will get—on Irvine-based Nelson Communications Group for the first El Toro public-information program. That contract included much of the same materials as proposed by Amies: a website, glossy brochures, slick mailers, event kiosks and even a shiny new logo.

The original Nelson proposal—designed to “acknowledge and empathize” with local residents—included a call for developing a “grassroots campaign fabric” for El Toro because “the media, by nature, have trouble with complex issues.” The final result of the Nelson contract: 67 percent of voters in March 2000 approved anti-airport Measure F.

County supervisors never put the contract out to bid, awarding it to Amies, a company run by airport booster Bruce Nestande's former brother-in-law that specializes in promoting high-tech companies and cookie-cutter housing developments—not high-profile, incredibly controversial political projects.

One of Amies' current clients is Southern California Logistics Airport (SCLA) in Victorville, but that airport has only been open since 1994 and has been struggling for business every step of the way. So far, SCLA has just one commercial airline and one cargo flight flying in and out per week.

All of this PR money comes on top of $5 million the county already gave to pro-airport cities to promote the airport, and over $3 million set aside by Newport Beach for the same purpose.

Pro-airport supervisor Chuck Smith says all this money is necessary to counter the South County's “outright lies.” But it's also important to remember that South County wants to build the Great Park at El Toro—a plan completely endorsed by the residents who live around El Toro, while Smith sees public relations convincing county residents to ignore the wishes of those living around the base and getting that airport built as fast as possible.

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