Airport Director Bern Case had been on the job for a few months when his advisory board rebelled.

The volunteer panel marched into Jackson County Commissioner Sue Kupilllas' office with an ultimatum:

"Either he goes, or we go," the group told Kupillas.

"I told them, 'Thank you for your service to community and I wish you well,'" recalled Kupillas, who along with fellow commissioners Ric Holt and Jack Walker had hired Case. Four of the seven board members resigned.

After 24 years running the county-owned airport, Case is retiring Nov. 30. During his tenure, the airport has built a new terminal and control tower, added hangars for large private jets, seen the arrival of aerospace manufacturing, and more than tripled commercial passenger activity.

 

"Bern is not your typical bureaucrat," said Brad Hicks, president and CEO of the Chamber of Medford/Jackson County. "He may work in a bureaucracy, but he's a very entrepreneurial guy."

Under Case, the airport operating budget grew from $3 million to $8 million, with capital expenditure soaring from $10 million to $50 million — without dipping into county general funds.

During the interview process, Case told former County Administrator Burke Raymond he wasn't a believer in airport subsidies. If he were chosen to run the airport, it would never need to be subsidized by the community.

"He said, 'I'm writing that down, Bern, and holding you to it,'" Case said. "We've done well on dollars."

The airport was a small regional player with a couple of high-priced, big-city connections, a handful of fixed-base operators, air ambulance, a few dozen scattered hangars and tie-down parking for general aviation on the tarmac, and largely unpaved lots for travelers. The airport is on course to well exceed 900,000 passengers this year with routes to nine cities and five airlines. There are nearly 40 generation aviation hangars and two large corporate hangars.

Case brought change to an environment somewhat resistant to doing things differently, where about 900 passengers came and went on any day, and security tended to be on the lax side.

"He had a very different demeanor than his predecessor, Gunther Katzmar," Kupillas said. "He had different thinking when it came to regulation. Airport security was relaxed with no fences, so people came and went. When he began following FAA requirements, it made the good ol' boys angry. But he always had good reasons for everything he did."

It was Case's fourth stop in his third career. A former policeman and erstwhile mortician, Case entered the airport administration field in Salt Lake City, before managing airports in Michigan and Texas.

Googling wasn't an option when Case took a look at the Rogue Valley back in 1993. He resorted to Places Rated Almanac, which highlighted cost of living, crime, climate and such.

"This is a pretty wonderful place," he thought then, as now. "It's not Mayberry, we've got all the amenities, but it's not a megatropolis. For this size of airport it's really nice to be a good distance from a hub airport. We're five or so hours away (by car) from Portland and five or six hours from Sacramento. That makes it easier to build services."

The county was pursuing foreign trade zone designation for the airport when Katzmar retired. Case had marketed a foreign trade zone in the past, and used it as a selling point. After the airport got the designation, the foreign trade zone produced good numbers to begin with before global conditions changed.

"Every time the government writes a new trade agreement, trade zones, particularly smaller ones, atrophy," Case said. "That was the case with ours. It got down to about three or four loyal customers. It was costing about $100,000 a year to keep it operating. We tried to get those customers to divide up the cost, but no one wanted to, and so they ended taking their business to other foreign trade zones in the region."

A natural marketer, Case pointed to growth at his two previous posts in Michigan and Texas.

"I love to market and marketing is important to airports," he said.

Whether it's Kiwanis, Rotary, Lions, churches or schools, Case always has been ready to talk about the airport.

"The key with airlines is numbers," Case said. "If they see you are vibrant, they tend to make you more vibrant. If you're struggling, it's a tough pitch."

Although it was clear the business community desired more options, Case learned quickly that a significant component of the population didn't care to see the airport grow.

"I've tried to consistently use the term 'right sizes,'" he said. "I believe in that philosophy, and the right size has grown."

Case pursued a litany of airlines, large and small. Some carriers couldn't compete in this market and others simply didn't survive. Sometimes, his pundits called the changes the "airline of the quarter," but the airlines' presence built numbers and showed Medford was a viable air market.

"They helped prove the market," Case said. "When you went back to airlines that were bigger — America West, Delta and United — they saw we were capable of filling planes."

With Case providing the vision and the chamber board desiring better air service, Hicks said, they wound up spending a great deal of time on the recruitment trail.

It was going to take money, and the board decided to put its money where its mouth was, Hicks said.

"Bern and I traveled the country recruiting air service, preserving air service, attempting to reschedule and save routes," the Hicks said. "In the process we became good friends, and had a little bit of success."

What Case didn't want to do, Hicks said, was to wave a wad of cash in front of airline executives; community commitment was far more effective.

They were well aware that Salem had raised $1 million to entice Delta to fly into Salem. A year later, Delta had burned the million dollars and Salem's commercial air service.

"I always remind people when they're complaining about air service not to forget our capital city doesn't even have commercial air service," Hicks said. "Bern wanted airlines that genuinely wanted to be here, versus those out there trolling for incentive money, so they could split as soon as the money was gone. I really credit Bern for sticking to his guns in that regard."

Hicks recalled a trip to America West headquarters in Phoenix to finalize a deal. Case wanted the carrier's executives to know how serious he and Hicks were by changing planes in Los Angeles so they could fly America West to Phoenix.

"Bern has 20 years on me, but he showed me that day, he could pick 'em up and put 'em down," Hicks said. "We had to sprint from terminal to terminal. The flight to Phoenix was so short that we were both still sweating when we arrived and we had to clean ourselves up before meeting with their senior executive team. They were, in fact, impressed and happy when we showed them our America West ticket stubs."

Perhaps the top achievement during Case's tenure was the construction of a $35 million terminal that opened in January 2009, and a complementing $3.6 million control tower that went live that May.

Case's big worry the day the terminal debuted was there wouldn't be enough visitors to consume the Costco-donated cake for 200 people.

"The cake was gone in 17 minutes and we had a couple thousand people in the terminal," he recalled. "The acceptance and support by the community made it a golden day."

Commercial travel hit its stride in 2001, setting annual records for six straight years. The airport was poised to blow by the half-million passenger mark when 9/11 struck.

"That was a tough deal, and it changed aviation forever," Case said. "It's a tough deal, even to this day."

Although he works for a county agency at a county airport and is surrounded by the likes of Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Security Administration personnel, he admittedly prefers community over agencies.

"Bureaucracy is a challenge," he said. "When somebody says you can't do it, it makes me want to do it even more. We've looked for solutions."

Other challenges included launching an in-house telephone company to the fuel crisis and Great Recession.

When United pulled its Boeing 737s from the market in 2003, it was disappointing on a number of fronts, but as Case would say, the lemons were turned into chiffon pie.

"It was a bit of a hit for us. We pivoted from big planes to talking about six flights to San Francisco instead of three, and we emphasized the itinerary and the positive we could."

While the size and quality of aircraft have improved, total annual operations — takeoffs and landings — have declined to about 40,000 from 50,000.

"General aviation is important to us," Case said. "Part of the FAA's funding calculations for whether they pay for a tower are based on operations. So I'm thrilled every time I see a flight instructor with a new guy doing touch-and-gos."

Case hoped to get a hotel on airport property, but couldn't get the wheels to turn fast enough and Courtyard by Marriott beat him to the punch. He also wanted to build a service station and convenience store to capitalize on rental car returns.

"I think that would still would go," he said.

Case's fascination for aviation stemmed from observing his dad's work with Lockheed as a kid, but he wound up as a mortician in Utah.

"I wrote a book on how to save money on funerals, it got published, and I got fired," Case said. "I needed a job."

It was summer 1978 and Salt Lake City airport needed an operations officer, which rolled up police, safety and runway inspections into one job.

"I had seen the movie "Airport," and thought Burt Lancaster (as airport GM) had a really good part," Case said. "Based on my military experience and some junior college classes I had taken in law enforcement, they hired me."

Earlier this year, Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. honored Case with its Inspiration Award.

“Bern inspires us because he’s very pro economic development,” SOREDI Executive Director Colleen Padilla said last summer. “He has done a fabulous job over the years to make us a better air travel destination."

When someone once told Case it will no longer be his airport after he retires,  he objected: "Oh, yes it will, it's the airport for anybody who flies out of here. I'll always feel some ownership."

— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness or www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.