Sunday, December 30, 2007
SM Airport manager Gary Rice to retire
By Malia Spencer
The Lompoc (CA) Record
In the nearly nine years Gary Rice has been at the controls of the Santa Maria Public Airport District, he has laid the groundwork needed to take the facility into the future. Building a new baggage claim, beginning plans to extend the runway, opening a customs facility and finally gaining city approval for commercial and industrial development at the airport are just some of the many projects the airport general manager has completed or started.
However, with the airport’s future as a charter and corporate jet destination, general aviation facility and job creator firmly in place, Rice, 61, has decided it is now time for him to move on.
With more than 30 years in airport management, Rice plans to retire in the spring with his last day scheduled for April 14.
By April 15, Rice and his wife Joan, expect to be on a plane flying to Venice, Italy, to start an extended European adventure.
?I’ve always had a dream of going to Italy to paint,? said Rice, an avid artist who had planned on a career as an art teacher. However, a stint in the Navy and training as an air traffic controller took him in a different direction.
After such a long career, he said, ?I need a clean mental break.?
With a bachelor’s degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Rice’s career began in 1974 when he got his first airport management job at a general aviation airport in DeLand, Fla.
Airport management appealed to Rice’s personality, he said. ?I like to make things happen and see things happen.?
After DeLand, he worked in other facilities in the Southeast until 1992 when he tried his hand at private sector work, landing a job with Lockheed Air Terminal in Southern California. He spent seven years with the company working on strategic plans for airport management until the business was bought and the division closed, he said.
By 1999, he saw the job opening at the Santa Maria Public Airport and after looking into the facility, he recalled, he saw great potential, especially with the plans to build a business park and golf course.
It was working on the business park that Rice said he went from being a project manager, something he understood, to coordinating a complex environmental process, which was new territory.
Rice and the airport board of directors had to completely revamp the project in 2000 when the endangered species, including the California tiger salamander, were found on the project site.
?We had to convince the U.S. Fish and Wildlife that (we) aren’t going to kill all these critters,? he said.
The extensive planning process for the project, which was only this year received the go ahead from the federal government and just weeks ago was approved by the city, was one of the most frustrating times of his career, he said.
Though Rice is leaving, officials say plans for the airport will remain on track.
The business park is a major project at the airport, but it is not the only big project Rice has had a hand in.
?It’s going to be tough to fill his shoes,? said airport board director Carl Engel. ?One thing we are looking at is Gary has brought us to this point in time, we have a baggage claim, hold room, customs, all this stuff, and there is talk (about) what do we need (from a new general manager).?
?We have a slate for the next 40 years out,? he added.
The airport is using the expertise of an outside consultant to try to find Rice’s replacement.
Newly appointed board president Don Lahr described Rice as ?the complete professional? with an expertise in working with the public, other government entities and the board.
?If I could get an extension of Gary, I would,? said Lahr about any new general manager.
?He has so much experience and he know so much about the day-to-day operations. What I have been impressed with is there are so many different facets to our airport and he has been involved in all of them.?
In addition to his work at the airport, Rice is an active member of the American Association of Airport Executives.
He is the past president of the Southwest chapter of AAE and has been president of the Southeast chapter and a member of the group’s national board.
When he leaves, he will miss the ?dedicated, hard-working people? who he works with everyday, said Rice.
But he is quick to point out that he has no plans to move away from Santa Maria and, in fact, hopes to get more involved with efforts to revitalize the city’s downtown.
Editor’s Note: We wish Gary all the best is his retirement and wish to congratulate him on a job very well done.