SEATTLE – When the US government began a series of military base closures in the late 1980s and 1990s as the Cold War wound down, communities across the country struggled to reinvent uses for these bases and to offset the loss of jobs.
The process was not always pretty or smooth. While some bases found second lives years later, many others, especially bases in rural settings, are still struggling to find their way more than a decade after the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission filed its final report in 2005.
Victorville, California, USA
Victorville, a community of 125,000 in San Bernadino County, California, is a rare exception. The rural community and former home to George Air Force Base has thrived since the base closed in 1992. I visit frequently and am constantly impressed at the dynamism here. It seems a new structure is being built every time I come to town.
What makes Victorville an exception? Why didn’t it stumble through the BRAC transition like other regions? When a military base closes, jobs disappear, morale dips, and towns go through an existential crisis. At least that’s the conventional wisdom. Many communities have floundered when faced with a base closing.
While former military bases like Alameda in the Bay Area and Sandpoint in Seattle struggle to find a post-Cold-War purpose, the conventional wisdom didn’t hold true in Victorville. Today, property rates are soaring beyond national averages and new jobs are being created.
Let’s take a look at what led to this high-desert town’s successful transition and continuing growth.
Part of Victorville’s secret recipe for success can be found in the way the town kept its focus on aviation even when the Air Force base was slated for shutdown. With an average of 360 days a year of “severe clear” skies, a dry climate, and ample land, Victorville is an ideal location for an aviation hub, and city leaders sensed that the region’s second act would also be tied to aviation.
Victorville has a long, rich relationship with aviation and trade that goes back to before the Civil War.
As far back as the 1850s, Victorville, then known as Lane’s Crossing, was a way station for people crossing the desert. It had a population of 10. In 1885, a telegraph station was formed at what is today’s Old Town Victorville. In 1926, US Route 66 opened, passing right through Old Town Victorville.
US Air Force and World War II
As the US turned toward involvement in World War II, the Victorville Army Airfield was built in 1941. It was renamed George Air Force Base in 1947 with the inception of the US Air Force. The airfield was in constant use for over a half century until its 1992 closure.
Once the base closed in 1992, the city was quick to re-affirm its ties to the aviation industry. It opened the Southern California International Airport (VCV) just two years later in 1994. It fast-tracked EPA Superfund cleanup, and the airport was granted an FAA Part 139 certificate in 1995, allowing it to start serving passenger and cargo operators.
By 1999, the airport had become the Southern California Logistics Airport (SCLA). In just seven years from the closing of George, Victorville had reinvented itself with a dynamic logistics airport.
The other part of Victorville’s successful post-Cold-War transition has to do with the city’s strong relationship with Stirling Development, which specializes in sustainable real estate and making the transition from concept to completion as smooth as possible. The public-private relationship between Victorville and Stirling has resulted in a string of successful developments over the last two decades-plus.
Stirling Development was appointed in 1999 as the master developer of the former George Air Force Base.
It quickly put into play a plan to develop a fully integrated 8,500-acre multimodal freight transportation hub with air and ground connections and a 2,500-acre commercial and industrial complex that today serves major logistics and aviation players such as Boeing, FedEx, General Electric, Pratt & Whitney, and well-known consumer brands like Dr. Pepper Snapple, Mars Wrigley Confectionery, and Red Bull.
Southern California Logistics Center
The 1,270-acre off-airport portion of the former Air Force base, now known as the Southern California Logistics Center, is still reaching its full potential under Stirling’s management. New tenants were signing leases and moving in right through the pandemic.
The industrial airport now serves customers who work in aircraft maintenance, flight testing, aircraft research and development, aircraft asset management, aircraft end-of-life-cycle services, and much more. Manufacturers are moving here to be closer to cargo routes, and logistics companies have set up shop to take advantage of the hub’s convenient services.
Keith Metzler, Victorville City Manager
On a recent visit, I chatted with Keith Metzler, Victorville’s city manager. He was bullish on the city’s prospects. Metzler has been instrumental in developing the commercial and industrial areas in Victorville that have resulted in 2,000-plus jobs for the community. He has signed a contract with the city that will keep him in his position until at least June 2025.
Metzler has lived in Victorville for more than thirty-five years, so he’s seen the complete transition from Air Force base to public-private project. Through his work in local government, he has helped coax the city’s growth.
Metzler says while the airport is thriving, the off-airport portion of the former Air Force base has also evolved under the leadership of Stirling. “Off airport, we have a number of successes on the industrial side and in the manufacturing and warehousing side including large, recognizable national and international companies,” he says.
Victorville and Amazon
During my visit earlier this year, the latest news was that Amazon was moving into a building that formerly housed a Wal-Mart store. Amazon will operate a “Last Mile Delivery Station” that will bring 150 jobs to the region later this year.
Amazon’s delivery stations are for powering the last stretch of its delivery services, Victorville city spokeswoman Sue Jones explained. The move is likely to create more jobs in the region for logistics companies that work with Amazon.
Days after the Amazon announcement, Stirling said it had sold a 66,000-square-foot commercial building at SCLA to Exquadrum, a defense contractor that works with the US Air Force, the Missile Defense Agency, and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
The building will serve as the company’s headquarters after the renovation is completed. That latest sale to Exqaudrum is expected to result in 40 more full-time jobs in the area.
This is the dynamism I’m talking about. In just a few days in mid-March, there were two significant announcements of important players setting up shop in Victorville. Every time I drop in on this town, it seems more new jobs are being created and more businesses are congregating here.
The Boeing 737 MAX
Other major aviation work going on in Victorville includes the reworking of the Boeing 737 MAX. The SCLA has room for about 500 aircraft, which led to airlines sending their Boeing 737s here after the grounding of the aircraft in March 2019. Southwest, the airline with the most 737s, brought its whole fleet to Victorville.
As that aircraft returns to the skies, the last Boeing 737 MAX parked in Victorville is likely to leave sometime later this spring, but there is bound to be a steady influx of aircraft to Victorville for the foreseeable future because of its ideal setting for aircraft storage.
An Aviation Hub in the Dessert
The desert offers lots of advantages when an airline needs to park a plane. First, space is not an issue here. Second, because space is not an issue, costs are low. And third, the dry climate limits corrosion.
Busy working airports tend to be in big urban centers where space comes at a premium, and many airports are near bodies of water, heightening the chance for corrosion of parked planes.
The SCLA is engaged in every point of an aircraft’s life cycle, from applying that first coat of paint to a brand-new plane to recycling aircraft that have reached the end of their life cycles. The following are a few of the major players in the Victorville area.
International Aerospace Coatings, the global leader in aircraft painting, has been operating in Victorville since 2007 when its ASC9100C-certified facility was completed.
The company handles paint jobs for Boeing, Southwest, Alaska, United, and other major carriers. IAC also handles special paint jobs featuring Star Wars scenes and Pixar characters, for example, which take about eight days from start to finish, according to John Patterson, IAC Vice President of Operations for North America.
Boeing at SCLA
Boeing has a large presence in Victorville. Boeing AOG performs specialized repairs, maintenance, and modification of Boeing aircraft here. It also serves as a completion center for aircraft requiring customized improvements.
Last May, in the midst of the early days of the pandemic, Boeing signed a 66-month lease with Stirling for 60,394 square feet of space to conduct machine-tooling work. “Boeing is a long-term tenant with multiple operations within the overall project area at SCLA,” Stirling COO Brian Parno said at the time.
Other Aviation Companies at Victorville
- General Atomics is a defense contractor and leader in the field of remotely piloted aircraft. It provides aircraft mechanics training here through a partnership with a local college and overhauls and upgrades remotely piloted aircraft.
- United Furniture Industries (UFI) of Mississippi leases a 505,000-square-foot facility and employs more than 300 full-time workers here. The company is known for its bonded leather sofas and recliners.
- ComAv Asset Management, an aviation-management and asset-management-services company, has its corporate headquarters in Victorville, and just recently renewed its lease for several years.
- Air Methods operates Mercy Air, an air-ambulance service for residents of the high desert. It also offers its services across the US.
- Aircraft Recycling Corporation offers aircraft dismantling and recycling services for aircraft at the end of their life cycles.
That’s just a taste of the many aviation-related and other businesses operating here.
Hollywood at SCLA
And finally, though Victorville seems worlds away from Hollywood, it’s only a 90-mile drive. That may be why Herman Mankiewicz and John Houseman spent 12 weeks in Victorville working on the screenplay for Citizen Kane. Or why so many plane scenes in famous Hollywood films and big-brand commercials have been filmed at SCLA. The airport has been the setting for scenes in films such as:
- The Fast and the Furious Tokyo Drift
- The Hulk
- Oceans 11
- Space Cowboys
And in TV commercials for State Farm Insurance, Porsche, Subaru, Ford Motors, Jaguar, BMW, Energizer, Gillette, Titleist golf balls, and for many airlines and logistics companies.
But perhaps the crème de la crème of aircraft scenes in Hollywood came in last year’s Christopher Nolan film, Tenet, which featured an actual Boeing 747 crashing into an actual building at SCLA. The building was built for the movie shoot, but the plane was very, very real.
As we shake off this pandemic and begin to travel again, Victorville is well-positioned to continue to thrive as a high-desert transportation hub that offers a complete menu of aviation services.
I look forward to my next visit, when, no doubt, more new tenants will be building new structures to get in on that Victorville magic.
Featured image: Author