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In an effort to better serve foreign business travelers and increase aircraft activity, the Santa Maria Public Airport is looking to reopen its U.S. Customs and Border Patrol office that was closed in 2009 due to financial burden the office posed.

Slated to occupy a 1,300-square-foot building near the airport terminal, the customs office would allow the airport to clear foreign nationals for entry into the United States. Currently, foreign nationals flying into Santa Maria for business have to first stop at another airport — like Los Angeles International — and clear customs before continuing on to Santa Maria.

The building — which will employ one full-time customs officer — will consist of two bathrooms, an area to clear passengers and their baggage and a small holding cell in the event there was a need to detain someone until law enforcement arrived.

With an estimated opening six to 12 months away, the customs office is expected to cost the airport a little under $200,000 per year, said Chris Hastert, general manager at the Santa Maria Public Airport. That cost will cover the salary of the officer, along with additional overhead associated with the office.

Windset Farms has offered to provide $75,000 and the city of Santa Maria has committed to provide $25,000 for three years. The office would also raise money through user fees, which would vary with the gross takeoff weight of the aircraft.

“The customs office we’re talking about is not for the normal traveling passenger,” Hastert said. “It’s for private aircraft coming in — not for airlines.

Having a customs office capable of handling commercial flights abroad would require a much larger building and staffing and cost around $1 million each year, he said.

The airport closed its customs office in 2009 after the office’s 2008 expenses reached around $148,500 but the office generated only $16,200. In 2007 — the first year the office was open — there was $2,350 of customs revenue on office expenses of around $146,000.

“In 2008-09 was the beginning of the recession,” Hastert said. “Business jet travel was down, the customs office wasn’t being used very much. In my opinion, it wasn’t really marketed very well but I had just started in 2008. So the board looked and said, ‘We have a lot of expenses having customs and we’re not really having a lot of use.’ So they voted to close customs.”

In 2013, British Columbia-based Windset Farms — which operates a vast greenhouse facility growing vegetables on the west side of the city — approached airport management about reopening the customs office. Executives from Windset Farms fly into Santa Maria roughly once or twice a week.

After getting the commitment of funds from Windset Farms and seeing an uptick in business jet activity from 2008, the airport initiated the process to bring the customs office back in 2015.

“Now we have a base tenant that would use it, plus additional support for the expenses and so our board voted to initiate trying to bring back customs,” Hastert said. Since then, the airport has gotten a letter of support from Gov. Jerry Brown’s office that U.S. Customs and Border Patrol required as part of the application, and submitted a business plan which touts the amount of jet travel the airport expects from Windset Farms and other businesses.

The closure of the airport’s customs facility in 2009 has raised concerns with regional customs officials, who are worried about the airport’s ability to keep the office open.

“There are some legitimate concerns they have based on the fact we had it here for just a few years and then closed it down so quickly,” Hastert said. “They don’t want to see that happen again. They want to make sure that if we bring it back, it’s something that is going to be used so that the skills of the officer up here aren’t wasted. They want to make sure there’s enough activity that the officer will be used.”

In addition, Hastert said customs officials wanted to be assured that Santa Maria had the financial stability and backing for a long-term commitment.

“I don’t know how long of a period that’d be yet but we’re working towards providing a better commitment towards the customs office for what we want to do here,” Hastert said. “Our next steps are really meeting with all of the key people here in Santa Maria and making sure we are committed long term before we go back to the customs office to give them more information to make them feel better about the project.”

In addition to serving business jets traveling to Santa Maria, the airport hopes to be able to clear jets looking to refuel on their way to other U.S. destinations.

“We’d want to market the airport to various businesses that are flying from say, Japan, that are looking for a place on the West Coast to clear, take on more fuel and continue their journey on,” Hastert said. “With stopping in L.A., you have delays with waiting for the customs agent to handle your specific airplane, there are delays getting into the air as well. Santa Maria would be an attractive place for a business jet looking for a quick place to refuel.”

The goal would be for the customs office to serve more than 300 aircraft each year, Hastert said.

“That’s good for several reasons — one, it keeps the airport’s activity up, and two, some of those business people that may not be real familiar with Santa Maria get some exposure to some of the opportunities for expansion in the area,” he said.

Santa Maria Public Airport Director David Baskett said operating the customs office is a public service for the community that will help spur economic growth in the region.

Windset Farms management also believes the Santa Maria airport is an underutilized asset given the congestion at nearby airports, said public affairs consultant Tom Widroe, who represents the company.

“We’re at sea level, so ingress and egress for pilots is easy,” Widroe said. “It’s not congested. The weather is optimal — some of the best, most consistent in the world. If L.A. and San Francisco were not experiencing congestion, there might be less of a need for customs in Santa Maria. But business is booming, corporate jets are flying and they need a way to get around. Like anything, it'll take a few years to build up the traffic. We’ll have to market it and let people know about the best customs experience on the West Coast.”

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Razi Syed covers Santa Maria City Government for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.  Follow him on Twitter @razisyed

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