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Gillespie Field gets ready for takeoff with 'Aerotropolis' redevelopment

An aerial shot of Gillespie Field in East County.

Gillespie Field is preparing to spread its wings.

“Gillespie Field is our asset, as the ocean is for some people,” said Jo Marie Diamond, president and CEO of the East County Economic Development Council.

The East County EDC’s vision for an “Aerotropolis” would create an economic hub in El Cajon centered around the airport. The council is working on a strategic road map, which could include manufacturing, hospitality, tourism and retail, offices, research and development, Diamond said.

The county has also proposed a Cajon Air Center for Gillespie Field, a redevelopment of the 70 acres where the Cajon Speedway had been.

“A review of Gillespie Field land uses and forecasted needs in 2005 indicated there was demand by the aviation community for additional aviation development at Gillespie Field. The 70-acre proposed Cajon Air Center is an undeveloped open area, so this area was available to fill the demand needs at Gillespie Field,” said Michael Drake, County spokesperson, in an email.

“Additionally, the FAA required future development on the site to be for aeronautical purposes as originally set forth in the County’s Deed Restrictions and federal grant assurances for the Airport.”

Gillespie Field was constructed in 1942 and is located off Bradley Avenue and state Route 67, about 10 miles northeast of downtown San Diego. It is owned by the County of San Diego and operated by its Department of Public Works.

“The Aerotropolis concept is intended to develop businesses adjacent to Gillespie Field that would complement airport operations. The intent here would be to create a symbiotic relationship with the airport and these area businesses, but the Aerotropolis concept is not directly related to the development of the 70 acres,” Drake said.

The San Diego Foundation Governing Board awarded the East County EDC a $50,000 grant in March to fund the initial planning, strategic development and collaboration needed for Aerotropolis, and Diamond said they are waiting to hear about a U.S. Economic Development Administration planning grant as well as a grant from Caltrans.

The EDA grant is for $40,000 and the Caltrans Community-based Transportation Planning grant is potentially valued at $300,000, according to an information sheet from the East County EDC. Caltrans staff had indicated that a decision would be made by June, but Diamond said there has been a delay in the review process and they may not hear a decision until fall.

The idea was first introduced in late 2011, when there was a bus tour of the area.

“We had a bus tour and featured Gillespie Field and the Allen Airways museum. This was when we first used the word ‘Aerotropolis’ in public,” Diamond said. “We’ve been doing a lot of work, pulling together funding and getting experts for a steering committee. It’s ambitious, but worth doing.”

The steering committee is still is the process of being formed, and will include regional and East County members. The road map will identify opportunities, potential and near goals, which will be ambitious, Diamond said. It will be flexible to accommodate for new ideas and opportunities.

Diamond said three cities are in negotiations for business-class hotels and some areas are looking into museums, which is an early result of the Aerotropolis radiating out. She said the economic impact of the Aerotropolis hasn’t been defined yet, but the road map will study the effects. Gillespie Field has already contributed more than $403 million and 3,164 jobs to the local economy, according to an information sheet from the East County EDC.

“It’s a smart growth initiative as well,” Diamond said. “If people have better jobs in East County, they won’t be driving west and clogging up the westbound lanes.”

Diamond said the Aerotropolis vision is attractive now for many reasons, including the extension of state Route 52 east to Highway 67.

The Department of Public Works has proposed to redevelop the 70 acres that were used for the Cajon Speedway, located in the southeastern corner of Gillespie Field.

Diamond said the East County EDC does not have any control over that redevelopment, and it is a project of the county.

“We want to respect what the community has to say. Wherever there are airports, there are people who aren’t going to like it -- who are going to have questions about it,” Diamond said.

The current plan is to construct a single taxiway and ramp to provide aircraft access to the 70-acre property, Drake said. Development of the 70 acres may increase the number of flight operations, depending on the type of aeronautical facilities constructed and uses approved.

“Development of the property for aeronautical uses will create both short- and long-term jobs, increase local property tax revenues, and help to support increased property values on adjacent properties by putting this area into productive use,” Drake said.

The county is close to finalizing the federal environmental process. For planning purposes, the county has developed a Cajon Air Center Planned Development Schedule.

Upon completion of the federal environmental assessment, a design will be developed that will adhere to FAA requirements for aeronautical uses, Drake said.

“The individual lots available for aviation development would be leased to the future aviation users through the County Airport’s leasing process, and the future private lessees would then be able to construct aviation-related facilities on their lease sites,” Drake said. “Development of the 70 acres is dependent on FAA funding to construct the ‘backbone’ infrastructure, so the exact timing of the development is not currently known.”

Some concerns raised during the environmental review process include lead levels, the number of flight schools at Gillespie Field, and noise, Drake said.

“The EPA recently released results of a year long monitoring program for lead levels at several airports across the country, including Gillespie Field. The EPA found levels at Gillespie Field were well below the national standard,” Drake said.

“Regarding noise, once an aircraft is flying, it is under the control of the FAA; so County Airports has no authority to regulate where or when aircraft fly. However; Gillespie Field has a Voluntary Noise Abatement Program (VNAP) for pilots, which we continually encourage pilots to comply with," Drake said. "The County will be structuring the future aviation leases on the 70-acre site to provide for balanced aviation uses on the property.”

From 1964 through 2012, Gillespie Field had an annual average of 219,901 takeoffs and landings, known as operations, according to the San Diego County’s website. This equates to a daily average of 602 operations. There are typically fewer operations during the fall and winter. The annual average for 2009 through 2012 was 202,951 operations, and there were 184,512 operations in 2012.

Gillespie Field is a general aviation airport. It serves primarily single and multi-engine aircraft and operations include air taxi, general aviation -- local and itinerant -- and some military activity, according to a September 2012 Community Relations Traffic Pattern Review completed by the county. There are several flight schools that operate at the airport, including those to non-U.S. citizens.

Advocates for Safe Airport Policies (ASAP) did not respond for comment to discuss the Aerotropolis prior to deadline.

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