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Santa Monica Museum of Flying Cleared for Continued Operations


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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

August 15, 2017 -- Despite the political and legal turbulence swirling around Santa Monica Airport, the Museum of Flying has been cleared for continued operations over at least the next five years at SMO, and at a deeply discounted rent.

The museum, which was founded in 1974 as the Douglas Museum and Library, has received a long-term lease from the City of $1 a year, with a renewal option of another five years, officials said.

Providing a smooth ride for the museum comes at a time of upheaval at SMO, which had already been the target of a decades-long drive to shutter it when the City Council announced a surprise consent decree with the federal government to close it by the end of 2028.

Check for Museum of Flying Lease
Council members Tony Vazquez and Gleam Davis pose with check alongside Museum of Flying officials (Courtesy City of Santa Monica)

In a signing ceremony August 9, Council Member Gleam Davis (who is also mayor pro tem) said the nearly no-rent arrangement with the museum will help assure its future.

The museum, she said, will be a “center piece” for the 227-acre airport as it “fully transitions to parks, open space, recreation, education and cultural uses.”

“The City of Santa Monica is fully committed to doing its part to preserve and celebrate our rich aviation history,” she said.

In return, the museum commits to continuing free tours for schools and allowing the City to use the facility four times per year for community events at no cost.

The City Council voted for the agreement at its August 8 meeting. The lease will reduce City revenue by about $30,000 each year, a staff report said.

Located at 3100 Airport Avenue, the museum has remained since its lease expired in 2015 and operated as a holdover tenant of the City, which owns the airport.

Although the City has been raising rents for airport tenants -- prompting complaints and some tenant departures -- regulations by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allow “airport sponsors” such as the City, to provide discounted rents for aviation museums, City Manager Rick Cole said in a report to the City Council.

Santa Monica's century old municipal airport is the oldest operating airport in Los Angeles County.

Born as a grassy landing strip and the site of famous Barn Stormer's, Wing Walkers and WWI biplanes, the airport eventually became home to Douglas Aircraft Company.

Assembley of Douglas Aircraft at Santa Monica Airport in 1921
Assembley of Douglas Aircraft at Santa Monica Airport in 1921 (Santa Monica Image Archives)

Douglas ramped up operations as the country prepared for WWII, at one point employing as many as 44,000 workers for around-the-clock shifts.

It was a transformative era, city historians note, in which the sleepy beach resort/bedroom community became a primarily blue-collar town.

A public nonprofit, the museum started as the Douglas Museum before being renamed the Museum of Flying and opening in a new building in 1989 at 2772 Donald Douglas Loop North, where it remained until financial troubles forced its closure in 2003.

In 2012, the museum reopened at its current location at 3100 Airport Avenue.

With approximately 23,000 square feet of exhibit area and nearly two dozen aircraft, the museum includes aviation-related artifacts and exhibits related to the Douglas Aircraft Company and aviation in general.

It features a broad collection of aviation art and photographs including three very large murals created by noted aviation artist Mike Machat. The Museum has three “open cockpit” exhibits including the authentic FedEx Boeing 727 cockpit.

As the battle over SMO’s future intensified, the City has been at odds with SMO tenants over the terms of leases and rising rents.

The aeronautics industry also claims the City has been trying squeeze out aviation-related tenants in its bid to gain more control and end its operation as an airport.

Gunnell Properties -- SMO’s second-largest tenant -- left last year ("Major Aviation-Related Tenant at Santa Monica Airport to Vacate," March 1, 2016).

Other former tenants include Atlantic Aviation and American Fliers and the Typhoon restaurant, which closed in November after 25 years overlooking the runway in response to the tripling of its rent by the City ("Major Santa Monica Airport Tenant Issued Eviction Notice," September 16, 2016 and "Santa Monica Airport's Typhoon Restaurant to Close After City Hikes Rent," October 11, 2016).

The two private aircraft-support providers left as the City began moving to take over their services.

But in a report to the City Council, City Manager Rick Cole said helping the museum -- which has about 30,000 paid visitors a year -- would be “honoring the role aviation has played in the economic and community development of Santa Monica.”

“Despite the wide variety of views in the community regarding the current operation of Santa Monica Airport, there is broad consensus regarding the importance of maintaining the Museum as an operational, stable, and financially viable educational and historical entity for future generations,” he said.

Museum executives recently approached City staff and asked for a “more supportive relationship,” Cole said.

“After considering various alternatives, staff believes the best and most effective means of support available is for the City to enter into a modified gross lease with a nominal rental rate

The City also would be responsible for the museum’s exterior, roof and foundation.

The museum’s tax returns for 2014, 2015 and 2016 showed it does not have “excessive surplus cash and a nominal rental rate would improve the Museum’s cash flow,” the report said.

“In addition to the benefit of improved cash flow, the proposed lease would enhance the Museum’s ability to raise funds because donors would be assured the Museum has secured space for at least the ten-year term of the lease, and show the Museum has a strong partnership with the City,” the report said.


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