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San Bernardino Sun: Local control gains momentum

March 24, 2012

What a public relations coup for the city of Ontario.

Having Los Angeles icon Tommy Lasorda record a commercial in support of returning L.A./Ontario International Airport to local control was inspired.

The video featuring the beloved former L.A. Dodgers manager debuted Wednesday night at the State of the City event at the Ontario Convention Center - to the cheers of an enthusiastic Inland Empire audience.

The PR breakthrough was covered not only by this newspaper but by L.A. television and radio stations. The ad will continue playing as a paid spot.

Fed up with getting nowhere in negotiations with Los Angeles World Airports - the L.A. city agency that manages ONT and Los Angeles International Airport - Ontario launched its PR campaign, Set ONTario Free, almost two months ago. The local-control effort has gained the endorsement of nearly 60 cities, agencies and elected officials.

If only LAWA had conducted such an effective PR campaign showcasing the benefits of flying in and out of ONT, this battle for control of the airport might not have had to take place. But quite the opposite is true.

Chris Hughes, Ontario's city manager, told Upland Rotary members recently that LAWA cut its marketing budget for ONT from $1.3 million in 2007 to $300,000 this year - and he doesn't see much evidence LAWA is spending even that small amount.

In 2007, the year L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed Gina Marie Lindsey as executive director of LAWA, ONT had 7.2 million passengers. This year the figure won't be much above 4 million. Lindsey blames the economy exclusively, but that doesn't explain why ONT is hurting more than just about any other airport. January figures showed LAX up 5.4 percent in passengers over last year, while ONT continued to spiral downward with a 7.3 percent loss.

The air travel regionalization push once supported by Villaraigosa has disappeared. LAWA now treats ONT as a competitor to its favored LAX, in the view of Hughes and other Ontario officials.

Lasorda wasn't the only big backer out of L.A. to speak up last week for local control of ONT. On Tuesday, a Los Angeles City Council committee agreed to analyze Ontario's proposal to take over the airport - another major breakthrough. L.A. Councilman Dennis Zine in particular pushed hard for local control, noting that restoring ONT to former passenger levels would ease traffic on L.A. freeways.

Momentum is building for local control.

"No is not an option," Ontario Mayor Paul Leon emphasized in his State of the City remarks.

We'll give Tommy Lasorda the last word:

"C'mon, L.A., let's set ONTario free."