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July 12, 2024

Work begins on next phase of Yanks Air Museum

SOUTH COUNTY — After at least six years of stalling, construction for the Yanks Air Museum has restarted in Greenfield. 

Grading for the museum began Aug. 23 once the final map of the project was officially recorded at city hall Aug. 14 during a small ceremony with staff that also included Greenfield Mayor Lance Walker and Mayor Pro-Tem Yanely Martinez.

The 135-acre complex in the north end of town, east of Highway 101, will include 120,000 square feet of commercial space that will feature a winery, hotel, restaurants, an amphitheater, airstrip and more. 

According to the California Business Transportation and Housing Agency, the museum is expected to bring about 2,000 construction jobs and at least 300 permanent jobs.

It is a project several decades in the making, according to Greenfield Assistant City Manager Paul Mugan, who said the museum will be an economic boost to the city as well as the entire South County. Mugan hopes to have the museum open by next summer. 

“It’s going to be historic,” Mugan said. “The exciting part of the story is that it’s getting done.”

To understand why, one must know the project’s history and its importance to southern Monterey County. 

The Salinas Valley, known as the “salad bowl of the world,” is dominated by agriculture, cranking out approximately $3.5 billion of agricultural output in terms of production and processing, according to a report published by the Monterey County Agricultural Commission in 2011.

But back then, according to Graig Stephens of the Soledad Historical Society, it was mostly family farms.

That began to change when larger corporate farms bought smaller farms. The 1940s and 1950s era car and tractor dealerships in the South County cities from which smaller farmers purchased their equipment began to dry up, Stephens said, and business gradually consolidated in Salinas.

Monterey County entered the modern wine tourism landscape following a 1960 report by UC-Davis viticulture professor A.J. Winkler, who compared the region to Napa and Sonoma counties and the Burgundy and Bordeaux regions of France. 

Wine country and location right off the 101 is what attracted Yanks Air Museum owner Charles Nichols to Greenfield. 

Nichols, an avid collector of vintage American aircraft and owner of a lumber company in Baldwin Park, opened the Yanks Museum in Chino in the late 1980s and wanted a second location.

“The only thing that didn’t fit was the winds because the wind is a little strong there,” Nichols said, referring to Greenfield, although that has not deterred him from opening a second museum. 

In 1988, Nichols purchased the 440-acre Hanson Ranch property onto which the new museum is to be built. It is not meant to replace the Chino location but merely act as an expansion that will “focus on providing customers with a technologically enhanced larger atmosphere,” according to the Yanks Museum website. It is one of the largest air museums in the world.

“I haven’t seen one bigger,” Nichols said.

The museum in Chino not only houses aircraft, but also restores them. Nichols said that he hopes to do the same thing in Greenfield, although that function will primarily occur at the one in Chino because the mechanics live in the area. 

According to Mugan, it is rumored that a Lockheed Constellation, part of a line of aircraft that were used as troop transports during World War II, will be the centerpiece of the museum. Although the Constellations fell into obsolescence in the 1960s, Mugan said the Greenfield aircraft is the only one of its kind that can fly. 

The process of constructing the museum began with the issuance of the environmental impact report, along with the annexation process, in the late 1990s. The museum land that was property of the county was formally handed over to Greenfield in January 2019.

The first phase of the project included a luxury RV park, which was completed in 2013. Then the project stalled. During this time, Mugan said, almost nothing was done. His boss was Susan Stanton, who in 2007 attracted national media attention after her controversial firing as the Largo, Fla., city manager upon disclosing that she was transgender. 

Stanton was terminated as Greenfield city manager in 2017.

According to Nichols, the hangup had to do with disputes between the city and Caltrans regarding the freeway offramp, the design of which he said was changed at least three times. Now the project is on a fast-track, Nichols said. 

A $2.2 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration improved sewer and water infrastructure in the end of the city, which Mugan said facilitates construction of the Yanks project. 

Of the 440 acres of land purchased by Nichols, 300 were placed into trust under the Williamson Act to preserve agricultural land for which the Salinas Valley is known. 

Mugan does not expect the museum to be a huge profit-maker.

“It’s not an air museum to make money,” Mugan said. “Museums don’t make money.”

Instead, he expects the rest of the complex — the restaurants, hotel, gas stations and other features — to drive even more tourism into South County. It will complement the Arroyo Seco viticultural region as well as the Pinnacles National Park, northeast of Soledad.

Mugan added that the museum, plus the new cannabis processing facility on Cherry Road that went into operation in 2017, shows that Greenfield is up-and-coming.

“I think (South County) is an undiscovered region,” Mugan said. “Everything has a season, if that makes sense, and it’s our time.”