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Supervisors considering changes to Castle's name

For more than 50 years, the now-decommissioned Castle Air Force Base has borne the name of a World War II pilot who gave his life to spare civilians.

The commercial airport that's there today has kept the honorific.

But that could soon change.

The Y word is coming.

As Merced County continues its effort to redevelop the former base, county officials are considering a name change for Castle Airport Aviation and Development Center.

They're hoping the move will help garner international recognition for Castle, which is slated to provide passenger flights by 2008.

For the past several months, Castle officials have been vacuuming input from consultants and commercial airlines on how to market the airport better. It boasts, for example, the sixth-longest runway in California. "They all say the same thing," said John Fowler, who is overseeing the base's redevelopment. "We need a name that's recognizable throughout California and throughout the world."

Although a final decision has yet to be made, Castle officials are floating two ideas for the new name. And both involve the most famous Y word in the Valley.

Central California Yosemite Airport and Merced County Yosemite Airport. "In Central California, there is only one internationally recognized destination, and that's Yosemite," said Fowler.

Under its current name, Fowler said most people outside the Central Valley can't place Castle, or even Merced County, on a map. Several other nearby airports are already using Yosemite for its international resonance, including the Fresno Yosemite Airport, the Mariposa Yosemite Airport and the Mammoth Yosemite Airport.

Castle was named for Brig. Gen. Frederick W. Castle, who received a posthumous Medal of Honor for brave acts over Belgium in 1944. Under attack by German pilots, Castle chose to go down with his plane instead of bailing to safety -- a decision that military officials said undoubtedly saved the lives of civilians below.

Castle officials say only the airport's name will change; the former base, now known as the Castle Commerce Center, will retain the general's name, as will the site's air museum. And Castle officials say that regardless of what name is chosen, the general will remain linked to the airport.

Officially, the airport's title would be followed by "Brigadier General Frederick W. Castle Field." (For example, under the first name suggestion, the airport's title would read, Central California Yosemite Airport -- Brigadier General Frederick W. Castle Field.)

Still, critics say a change to any name that doesn't begin with Castle is a slight to the base's heritage. "It's been Castle for as long as I've been in this community," said County Supervisor Deidre Kelsey. "I guess I'm not ready to let go of the old name. And when the name is that long, the Castle part will just get left off."

Others criticize the name-change plans for different reasons. Jim Price, vice president of Gemini Flight Support, said any change will impose substantial economic impacts for his company. Price said that Gemini, which provides support services such as fuel and catering to planes flying into Castle, has spent a lot of time and money marketing itself under the current name. "It's ludicrous to say a name change is going to bring more business," said Price. "For us, all this is going to do is confuse our customers and undo all the marketing efforts we've already made."

County officials disagree. "The experts tell us that this is the best way to go," said county spokesman Mark Hendrickson. "We want Castle to be successful. We want to create more jobs and opportunity, and that's what this boils down to."

Supervisor Mike Nelson, whose district includes Castle, said he supports calling the airport the Central California Yosemite Airport. "I think we can change the name and still honor the base's heritage," he said. Nelson added that he's received phone calls and e-mails from constituents both for and against the change.

The Board of Supervisors, which will ultimately decide Castle's new name, was presented with the two suggestions on Sept. 25. The board is now gathering input from the public and from businesses located at Castle. A decision is expected in a few weeks.

Since 2000, the county has been working to redevelop the 1,900-acre former Air Force base. Over that time, it's spent more than $17 million to turn Castle into a commercially viable airport. Several cargo airlines now fly to and from Castle, as well as local flight schools.

In January, Castle reopened its air traffic control tower. County officials say they expect to begin construction on a two-gate passenger terminal in the coming months. The airport has yet to contract with a passenger airline.

Reporter Corinne Reillycan be reached at 209-385-2477 or creilly@mercedsun-star.com.

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