For decades, the Gibbs family and Montgomery Field, the city-owned airport on Kearny Mesa, have been joined at the hip. The family's concrete-block buildings and metal hangars, its gas pumps, taxiways, and tie-down areas, have been home to pilots of modest means.
Then, more than two years ago, in December 2002, the city of San Diego received the results of a "business plan" it had commissioned from Airport Business Solutions, a consulting company hired to guide the development of Montgomery Field. The plan did not bode well for Gibbs Flying Service.
"The current site reflects a business that has expanded over the years, resulting in a 'patchwork' layout of tie-downs, T-hangars, offices, corporate hangars and maintenance facilities," the report said. "While continuing to provide services to both based and transient customers, visibility and functionality to their market segment is challenged as a result of the awkward physical layout, the very cramped space, and the company's lack of visibility from the primary general aviation transient ramp."
Obviously, the consultant said, things would have to change. Along Aero Drive, which borders the airport on the south, the consultant recommended developing rows of new office buildings to occupy land now occupied by Gibbs. "With a realignment of the Gibbs leasehold, the City could seek developers to add additional commercial office space along the Aero Drive frontage. This would not only create a substantial revenue stream but would also create a buffer between flight activities and auto and pedestrian traffic, resulting in much-improved security in that portion of the Airport."
For the rest of the airport and its small and dilapidated 1970s-era terminal, the report recommended a complete overhaul, to be paid for by revenue from the new tenants. Corporate-jet hangars would be added and air traffic boosted, all to maximize the city's take. "It is our recommendation that the City should begin planning for a new, more functional terminal building that is accessible to all individuals on all floors. Based upon historic utilization, a large conference room is needed for public meetings, and additional leaseable office space could help defray the cost of the facility."
"The new facility should be a structure that welcomes the flying public and the local community. A viewing area for families and interested persons to observe aircraft operations could be added to the second floor, along with a public restaurant area for lease," the consultant went on. "It should be noted that this is the only structure ABS potentially recommends for City development, with all other structures representing 'Third-Party Development,' both for aviation and nonaviation facilities."
The study wasn't all bad news for Gibbs. The consultant concluded that the family had a good record of service at the field; the city should consider renewing the lease when it expired on May 31, 2005. "Gibbs occupies the largest leasehold site and is the oldest MYF [Montgomery Field] tenant, and they have also earned a reputation of respect from the MYF customer. While the current leasehold site needs to be redeveloped for maximum efficiency, safety, and security, the history of this tenant warrants consideration in any future lease opportunities."
But something strange happened after Airport Business Solutions submitted its report. The study received limited distribution and was never officially adopted by the city council. A year later, another consultant produced another master plan, which also has yet to find its way to the city council, ostensibly because environmental issues have not been resolved. During 2003 and 2004, despite Gibbs's proposals to the city and the first consultant's advice that Gibbs be permitted to bid on a new lease, the family never got the chance.
Last July, says Tracy Means, the city's airports director, she tried to alert members of the city council's land use committee that the Gibbs lease was soon up for renewal, but she was turned aside. Although she had prepared a PowerPoint presentation that outlined the consultants' development options, "They didn't want to listen to me," Means says. As a result, she adds, the planned public airing of Gibbs and the airport's future was never held.
Ignored by both the city council and the higher-ups in the city real estate department, Means says that last September she fired off what she describes as a confidential letter to her bosses, in which she gave her recommendations about what to do when the Gibbs lease ran out, but no action took place. Then in December, with just a few months left for the Gibbs family, Means says she began meeting privately with city council staff members, telling them that the city would make more money from a new tenant. "Nobody argued with that," she recalls. No public hearings were held.
This January, Buzz Gibbs, son of company founder Bill Gibbs, wrote Means a letter in which he asked to open negotiations for a new lease on the Gibbs Flying Service site, referred to by the city as "Lot 3." In a letter dated March 6, Means wrote back, saying, "Due to the uncertainty of the future development of Lot 3, we are unable to consider your proposal at this time. Once the disposition of Lot 3 has been determined, we will re-evaluate your proposal."
Was a dark hand at work? Was a politically connected new tenant waiting in the wings? Or did the city's real estate department itself plan to run Gibbs Flying Service?
On April 13, Gibbs, along with many concerned pilots, presented his case to the city council's Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee. The committee was sympathetic. Last Friday, Gibbs learned that the city would extend his lease for one year, using a holdover provision in the existing lease. During the coming year, the city will put out a request for proposals.
With the long-term fate of Gibbs Flying Service in doubt, Buzz Gibbs recently reflected on his family's place in San Diego aviation history and offered his views on why, after nearly 70 years, the city might want his family to leave Montgomery Field.