On November 2, 1965, voters in Moses Lake approve by a landslide the creation of the Port of Moses Lake, for the purpose of taking over the soon-to-be-closed Larson Air Force Base. Proponents of the port district (also known as Grant County Port District No. 10) were aware that Larson Air Force Base, with its long runways and outstanding flight conditions, was scheduled for closure in June 1966. The port district encompasses 380 square miles. The federal General Services Administration will grant the Port the runways and flight facilities and the airport, renamed Grant County Airport, and later, Grant County International Airport will become a busy and important flight-training center for both military and commercial pilots. In 1968, Japan Air Lines will begin training its pilots there. In 1974, the Port will obtain more acreage and develop industrial storage and manufacturing facilities. Economic development will become significant and the Port of Moses Lake Industrial Park will attract major tenants. Japan Air Lines will leave in 2009, but the airport will continue to be an important training facility for The Boeing Co. and for military pilots.
Creating Port of Moses Lake
In 1959, Grant County residents began a drive to create a huge port district that would encompass all of Grant County. That drive hit some roadblocks and stalled. Then, in 1965, another large port district was proposed that would include Moses Lake, Soap Lake, and Ephrata. This idea was spawned by an alarming announcement from the Air Force: Larson Air Force Base, a major employer and economic engine for the entire county, was scheduled for closure in 1966. Before long, however, an Ephrata contingent split off and announced plans for a separate Ephrata Port District in May 1965. Moses Lake port boosters then resolved to create their own district, with the specific goal of taking over the Larson Air Force Base when the military moved out.
The vote to create the Moses Lake Port District took place in late 1965 and passed by a landslide, 1,835 in favor to 201 against. The district then began to organize in preparation for the acquisition of Larson from the General Services Administration, which would be in charge of the disposition of the base. In early 1966, port officials lined up some crucial allies, chiefly, The Boeing Co., which expressed strong interest in using the former Larson runways and facilities to train pilots and flight crews.
"If Larson is acquired by the Moses Lake Port District, the training program will be split between Boeing Field and Larson, with the bulk of the training done at Larson," said Boeing's chief pilot ("Boeing Co.").
This strengthened the port district's argument with the General Services Administration, which subsequently granted the runways and other flight facilities to the Port. That original acquisition was for about 2,400 of the base's total 10,000 acres. On October 6, 1966, the commissioners of the Port of Moses Lake approved a $447,308 budget, which included funds to operate the former air base.
Other portions of the base later became the campus of Big Bend Community College, and some of the base housing was later turned over to the Grant County Housing Authority. On July 1, 1966, the airport was officially renamed the Grant County Airport and the Air Force began turning it over to the Port.
The airfield was officially re-dedicated on October 8, 1966. A crowd of about 3,500 gathered to watch the ceremonies and flight demonstrations.
Col. Clyde Owen in Command
The Port soon made another crucial move: naming Col. Clyde Owen, the base's final commander, as the new port executive manager. He retired from the Air Force upon closure of the base and became the port executive manager on November 1, 1966, serving until his retirement on January 15, 1984.
The Port's focus was almost entirely on the airport in those early days, because it had only a small amount of non-flight-related acreage -- and what little it had was not suited for economic development. Yet under Owen's management the airport soon became a thriving operation. By 1968, it had 50,000 takeoffs and landings a year. Almost all of those were training flights for Boeing and for the aviation program at Big Bend Community College. The college program continues to be major user of the airport.
Yet, said Owen in 1968, "we can handle more" ("Airport Now Schoolhouse"). The number of takeoffs and landings would eventually go over 200,000 per year, making the Grant County Airport at one time the third busiest in the state, according to Owen.
An Attractive Training Site
Grant County Airport was attractive as a training site for a number of reasons.
"Primarily, it's because of the uncongested air space," said former port executive manager David Bailey, who succeeded Owen. "We weren't fighting commercial traffic at major metro airports. There was no commercial traffic here whatsoever. And the weather conditions were favorable, much more favorable than the Puget Sound region. We were having around 350 clear days a year. And the length and width of the runways were very favorable" (Bailey).
One runway measures 13,503 feet in length -- more than two and a half miles -- making it one of the longest civilian runways in the U.S. The airport also has four other runways, one of which is 10,000 feet long.
Japan Air Lines at Moses Lake
The airport would soon handle even more training flights. In 1968, Japan Air Lines moved its major training programs to the Grant County Airport, beginning a 40-year presence at the airport. Eventually 10,000 JAL crew members would train at Moses Lake.
Japan Air Lines was attracted to Moses Lake because Japan had no suitable place for training jumbo jets. Also, those jets were primarily 747s made by Boeing, which already had a presence at Moses Lake.
Soon, the sight of giant 747s with rising sun symbols on their tails was an everyday sight in Moses Lake, as pilots practiced touch-and-go landings and flight instrumentation techniques.
The presence of Japan Air Lines had a significant impact on the entire community. For 30 years, the airline hosted one day of scenic flights for every sixth-grader in Moses Lake. Every year, the airline flew Miss Moses Lake to Japan to attend the annual Uesugi Festival, a cultural festival in Yonezawa, Japan, a sister city to Moses Lake. Many hundreds of other Moses Lake residents visited Japan on cultural exchange programs, courtesy of the airline.
The Grant County Airport even served for a time as a location for a Japanese television series. A leading character in a Japanese soap opera was training there to become a Japan Air Lines 747 pilot.
The airline's presence had a crucial economic impact on Moses Lake as well. The airline had a standing reservation for two floors of the local Hallmark Inn. Thousands of flight crew members over the years ate in local restaurants and played golf on local courses. The Japanese presence spawned many other cultural exchanges, including one in which thousands of Japanese farmers came to Moses Lake's Big Bend Community College for agricultural training.
Visitors to the airport saw several symbols of this Japan-Moses Lake partnership right at the entryway: a stone lantern, an ornamental cherry tree, and a small bamboo fountain.
Beyond the Airport: Industrial Development
In 1974, the Port of Moses Lake expanded beyond the airport. It acquired another 707 acres from the old Larson property, which included two large aircraft hangars totaling more than 500,000 square feet. These were marketed to various companies for manufacturing and storage purposes. One of the first tenants was Columbia Bean and Produce Inc., which stored wheat in the facilities.
As of 2011, one of the hangars was being leased by Genie Industries, which makes construction scissor-lifts and high-lifts. It has become a major Moses Lake employer. The other is leased to Chemi-Con Industries.
Other acreage on the old Larson site, including an area known as the Boeing Complex, was later acquired for what is now called the Port of Moses Lake Industrial Park, consisting of 54 buildings ranging from giant aircraft hangars to small maintenance buildings. Total square footage exceeds one million on more than 1,000 acres of land. Moses Lake Industrial Park became the key component of the Port's goal to provide economic development for the region.
The Port proved to be very successful at attracting industry, as illustrated by this envious 1982 editorial in the Spokesman-Review of Spokane, right after the Port helped lure a Union Carbide silicon plant to Moses Lake. "Moses Lake's success is the sort of thing that repeatedly will evade Spokane until a port district is established [in Spokane]," said the editorial. "The Port of Moses Lake has not levied taxes in four years. It is supported solely on rent, airplane landing fees and fuel flowage" ("Moses Lake Forges Ahead").
Today, tenants include Chemi-Con Materials Corp., a subsidiary of a Japanese firm, which makes aluminum foil for the capacitor industry; Kyra Wines; Crown Moving Company; Renewable Energy Corp., which makes silicon solar energy products and has become one of Grant County's biggest employers; Inland Mechanical; Takata, a manufacturer of the propulsion units for auto airbags; the Moses Lake School District; and numerous aviation-related businesses and industries.
As of 2011, the industrial park was 95 percent occupied. This success was made possible by some natural advantages of the region.
"One of the big draws of Grant County is its affordable power," said Bailey in a 2011 interview. "And naturally our rental rates are much more affordable than the Puget Sound area or Spokane" (Bailey).
Meanwhile, the Port was expanding in another way. The port district nearly doubled in square miles, through annexation, in February 2003. Voters in an area northeast of the Moses Lake Port District -- one of the few parts of Grant County not already in a port district -- voted to become part of the Port of Moses Lake. This added another 360 square miles to the 380 existing square miles.
Meanwhile, the Grant County Airport was renamed the Grant County International Airport in the early 1990s when the Port was granted foreign-trade zone status. Through much of the 1980s and 1990s, it served as a commercial airport, with service to and from Seattle via Horizon Air. That service, which had dwindled to only 27 passengers a day, ended in 2001. Big Sky Airlines and SkyWest/United Express provided service after that, but all commercial airline service ended on June 8, 2010.
A big shock came in 2009, when Japan Air Lines pulled out of the airport. The new generation of planes did not require such long runways, which meant that Japan Air Lines was able to move its training program to Oita Airport in Japan. It was a blow to the Grant County International Airport and to the entire community.
"I've got tears in my eyes just thinking about it," said one Moses Lake resident in 2008 (Hansen).
However, the airport has stayed busy as a training site for The Boeing Co.'s 747 jets and for the military. Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma stages a large number of C-17 cargo plane training flights at Grant County International because the airspace is much less congested than at McChord.
Meanwhile, the airport was scheduled to have even more Air Force traffic in 2011. In January, Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane began moving most of its air refueling tankers to the Grant County Airport for the year, while Fairchild's runways were being repaved. Fairchild rented four buildings, including the former Japan Air Lines hangar, for $94,670 per month. This is the second time that Fairchild has moved its flight operations to the Grant County Airport. It first did so in 1983, during another runway repair project.
The Port also played a key role in acquiring for Moses Lake the SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers Group/BMW carbon fiber parts plant -- making parts for auto giant BMW -- in 2010. The plant is adjacent to, but not on, Port property. The Port is providing access to its wastewater treatment facility, as well as access into the Foreign Trade Zone, which was another incentive for SGL/BMW to locate in Moses Lake.
The Port's 2011 budget was $17.5 million. About $3.4 million was for operating costs with most of the remainder for capital improvements and investments.
Since 2004, the Port's executive manager has been Craig L. Baldwin, the third executive manager in the Port's history after Owen and Bailey. As of 2011, the commissioners were D. Kent Jones, Brian McGowan, and Michael B. Conley.