The Miramar Air Show was canceled Thursday — one day before its scheduled start — because of the government shutdown. The last-minute action turned a potential money-maker for community programs at the Marine base into another loss.
A truncated, two-day version of the popular annual show had been planned months ago after the Defense Department barred military aircraft from performing, citing sequestration budget cuts. Then when the government shutdown began this week, Miramar officials decided to host the air show without using appropriated tax dollars or furloughed employees.
Staffing and other overhead costs would be paid from money generated by the revamped event.
On Thursday, Col. John Farnam, commanding officer of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, got the Defense Department notice that all outreach events were to cease during the shutdown.
By then, spectator chalet tents had been pitched on the flight line, civilian performers had arrived or were en route, fans had purchased premium seats and 5K race registration, and vendors had bought perishable food items for an estimated crowd of 100,000.
“The timing probably couldn’t be worse, but it is what it is,” Farnam said.
He apologized to San Diego for the cancellation and thanked the community for rallying around an air show despite the budget uncertainty and restrictions.
“Right now everybody is hard at work, as Marines always are, to move forward and make sure we shut this down in an orderly fashion and do it in a way to reduce any loss, any more funding loss than what we sustained already,” Farnam said.
The air show, which normally pumps an average of $1.5 million in net profits into base programs annually, will lose money this year after corporate sponsors and others who paid up front are reimbursed.
How much of a loss, Farnam said he doesn’t know yet.
The air show grossed almost $2.2 million last year during the usual three-day event featuring the Navy Blue Angels jet performance team.
After subtracting $542,987 in overhead and nearly $250,000 for military aircraft fuel paid out of training funds, the event was still a big money-maker, according to documents obtained by U-T San Diego through a Freedom of Information Act request.
That money provided about 15 percent of Miramar’s annual budget for Marine and family programs, including employment assistance for service members leaving the Corps and child-care for working parents.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, accused the Defense Department of trying to “create clamor” this summer by depriving a money-making event of its star attraction. He asked for details of the alleged cost savings after the July decision keeping military flights grounded for the show in light of sequestration budget cuts.
He received a reply this week from Rene Bardorf, deputy assistant secretary of defense for community and public outreach. Having been a family member of an active duty Marine, she said she understood “the unique and cherished relationship we share with our friends in San Diego.
“Unquestionably, this event is important to the county and the military community,” Bardorf wrote, but steep budget cuts had forced the department to withdraw support from more than 2,770 outreach events worldwide.
According to the Defense Department, it costs about $2.5 million to put on the standard three-day show featuring the Blue Angels. Net profits go to base programs, not to the department to reimburse it for the cost of military flights and about $350,000 appropriated for overhead.
This year’s modified air show was estimated to cost about $893,000 funded entirely from non-appropriated money generated by the base itself, Bardorf said.
Other costs of the air show usually include $542,000 in flight training hours for military aircraft performing in the show, $455,000 for running the air station, $772,000 for the Blue Angels and $187,000 for aerial demonstrations and displays from other services, Bardorf noted.
Many of those items were cut this year.
“Their numbers seem to include things like electricity to keep the lights on at the base, which they would have to pay for anyway,” said Joe Kasper, a Hunter spokesman.
“Air shows in general surely fall in the nonessential category during a shutdown but an air show that actually makes money for the Marine Corps, and a lot of it, could be considered essential on the grounds that it puts dollars in the bank,” Kasper added.
Hunter also questioned why the Defense Secretary green-lighted another money-making event, the Navy-Air Force football game, the day before canceling the Miramar Air Show.
“This is probably more about causing disruptions than it is logics,” Kasper said.
The goal for this year’s smaller event was merely to break even while continuing the San Diego tradition of opening the air station gates to San Diego, Farnam said: “That community engagement is the most important thing.”
Asked whether it was wise to proceed with the air show after sequestration, Farnam said: “I feel it was. ... The money that was spent in preparation for the air show occurred months and weeks ago. And this latest development with the government shutdown changed the game a little bit for us.”
The air show normally pumps about $17 million into the local economy, according to an estimate by the International Council of Air Shows.
John Cudahy, president of the trade group, said he had never heard of a major air show canceled the day before for anything besides extreme weather.
“It’s just the latest in a series of negative impacts that the dysfunction of our federal government is causing to the air show industry,” Cudahy said.
About 20 percent of air shows nationwide were canceled this year because of federal budget problems and the lack of military flights, he said. Those that pressed on often saw decreases in attendance of 70 to 80 percent.
“It says a lot about the Marines and civilians at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar that they were on the verge of putting on a show despite sequestration and the government shutdown,” about their determination to accomplish their mission and “their understanding of how much the air show means to the people of San Diego,” he said.
The news was a blow for Miramar Air Show organizers and fans, but many were sympathetic to the Marines.
The Patriots jet team of civilian fliers headlining the show had three jets at Miramar Thursday morning when they heard the show was canceled.
“Everybody is bummed because we had put a lot of effort into getting ready for this show. A lot of fuel was spent, time spent,” said lead pilot Dean “Wilbur” Wright, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who flew with the service’s Thunderbirds demonstration team.
Miramar gave them gas to fly home and will reimburse them for the cancellation according to their contract.
“We’ll hash it out,” Wright said. “They are doing the best they can. We totally understand the situation. They take care of us and we do our best to take care of them when we come there for the show.”
Alan McCornack, a 57-year-old Air Force veteran from El Cajon, said he wants the federal budget fixed, but he doubts snuffing the air show will help.
“Our debt is the runaway train that has to be stopped without more band-aid measures like raising the debt ceiling. We can’t just print more money,” he said.
“But cutting the air show indicates not merely an indifference to good economic sense, but an indifference to the collective will of the public.”
John Novak, 66, of Cherry Valley, attended the Miramar Air Show for the first time last year, bringing his children and grandchildren, ages 1 and 5. They still talk about last year’s F-22 demonstration and high-speed pass down the runway, seeing the Blue Angels and the little ones’ delight at climbing inside aircraft.
“We are very disappointed about this year at Miramar — twice. First was the withdrawal of the Blue Angels and military aircraft. And second hearing that the whole show is canceled. I blame both political parties for the country’s current misery,” Novak said. Miramar refunded his $300 for premium seats for this year’s show Thursday.
A San Diego company, Festivities Catering & Special Events, won the main food and drink concession contract this year. Now the company and its subcontractors face an estimated loss of $100,000 or more in revenues and perhaps $25,000 in unrecoverable food costs.
They were loading up the trucks when they got word. “It took the wind out of our sails. The entire company felt like we were punched in the gut,” said Frank Christian, vice president of festivities.
“Had the decision been made to cancel this on Monday when there was the shutdown or Tuesday, it would have given everybody more time to react,” he said.
AirShow San Diego, organizers of the event formerly known as “Wings Over Gillespie,” planned to staff a booth at Miramar and offer rides and portraits in their World War II-era aircraft.
The cancellation was very disappointing to members of the non-profit air show group, but they commended Miramar, fellow exhibitors and vendors for the tremendous work put in, “especially with such severe financial cutbacks,” said retired Marine Col. John Telles. “The amount of effort is hard to realize unless one has done it.”
Miramar officials aren’t sure yet how they will cover the loss in funds for base programs. Commissaries also closed indefinitely this week.
“These are extraordinary times. We haven’t seen things like this in decades,” Farnam said. “Like everything we do in the Marine Corps, and the DOD, we will push through and make this work.”
Planning for the 2014 air show has already begun.
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