Leavin' on a Jet Plane

 
As the Air Force prepares to fly away from New Mexico’s Cannon Air Force Base, the town it helped to build won’t let go
 
Silver wings shining in the sunlight,
Roaring engines headed somewhere in flight.
They’re taking you away, and leaving me lonely,
Silver wings slowly fading out of sight."

—"Silver Wings," by Merle Haggard

CLOVIS, New Mexico — At Merle Haggard’s third annual UFO Music Fest, held on July 3 in the 100-degree heat outside Clovis, N.M., Haggard stops in the middle of the song "If You’ve Got the Money, Honey," and shouts, "Hey, along with all the honky-tonks, they want to close the Army bases. What’s that all about?" The crowd raises beer cups and Stetsons, and roars in appreciation. A few yell out, "Air Force!"


Even if Haggard forgot which branch of the military is stationed just across the four-lane highway at Cannon Air Force Base, his sentiments were greatly appreciated.

Before Haggard and his band kicked off an 18-song set, Cannon’s commander, Col. John Posner, presented the country-western icon with a Chinese-made baseball cap from the base’s Fighter Wing 27, along with a commander’s coin. Col. Posner then asked the audience to remember the 350 men and women from Cannon currently deployed around the world. As Posner spoke, a long, slow-moving freight train chugged by, loaded with new khaki-painted tanks, Humvees, semi-trailers, tankers, trucks and other military vehicles.

But the colonel did not mention what was on everyone’s mind: In May, the 4,500-acre Air Force base — the largest economic engine in eastern New Mexico for the past 50 years — had landed on the Department of Defense’s closure list.

The listing was not a total surprise. Clovis Mayor David Lansford and city leaders had already hired a consulting firm and scheduled a news conference for the morning when officials in Washington, D.C., rolled out the list. Clovis was one of the first communities on the list to respond, and CNN picked up the town’s vow to fight the closure.

Base closures and consolidations have become a common feature of the post-Cold War landscape. In this fifth round of closures since 1988 (the last was in 1995), the Department of Defense has targeted some 33 military bases for closure and dozens of others for realignment, or downsizing. The Defense Department predicts a savings of $50 billion over the next 20 years, although a July report from the Government Accountability Office says it will cost the government $24 billion to implement the closures and realignments.

Military brass has concluded that Cannon — with its 80 F-16 fighter jets — has less military value than other bases with the same aircraft. Air Force officials say closing Cannon and other bases is part of a total military makeover to create a leaner, more nimble fighting force better suited to modern combat.

But understanding the Defense Department’s reasoning has not made it any easier for Clovis to accept the bad news. In fact, the town hasn’t accepted it at all. Over the past three months, Clovis has enlisted New Mexico’s governor and its entire congressional delegation in an all-out lobbying campaign to reverse the decision.

The target is the nine-member, independent Base Realignment and Closure commission — known as BRAC — which will present its recommendations to President Bush by Sept. 8. Five of its nine votes are required to remove a base from the Defense Department’s list, seven votes to add one. Bush will have until Sept. 23 to accept or reject the list in its entirety. It then goes to Congress for approval.

The only point at which a community has a realistic chance to be removed from the list is now, during the BRAC review stage. Historically, that chance is around 15 percent. (A few bases do get saved at the eleventh hour. In 1991, the commission decided to keep the Naval Air Station at Washington’s Whidbey Island.) Clovis, a growing town of 33,000, is working around the clock to achieve that miracle.

The community seems united and cautiously optimistic. The words "Save Cannon" decorate yard signs, T-shirts, buttons, ubiquitous elastic wristbands and the reader boards in front of most businesses. The worship sign outside True Victory Church takes the campaign into the heavens with "Pray Operation Keep Cannon."

But below the surface, it’s not hard to find the current of hurt and anger common to Western communities dependent on large industries that suddenly pull out. While the nation pours billions into the war in Iraq, the military wants to pull up stakes and leave this community, and the irony is not lost on the people of Clovis. Many are looking for a scapegoat. "It looks like maybe somebody’s got some heartburn about Cannon and we’re being blackballed by a couple of people," says Mayor Lansford. "I don’t know how to describe it. You go from being bewildered and confused to disbelief and anger."

The feelings are all the more conflicted because pro-military Clovis finds itself in the uncomfortable position of wanting to slap the hand that has fed it for decades.

"It does feel weird," says Gayla Brumfield, a local real estate agent. She likens the tension to a rocky patch between a long-married couple. "There’s going to be times that a spouse gets on your nerves for whatever (reason), and I think that’s where we are."

Then again, Clovis’ marriage to the military might be really over. And perhaps a quick no-fault divorce would force it to figure out if it can be something other than a booming military town — or the isolated outpost it was before Uncle Sam showed up.

The making of a military town

To an outsider, Clovis seems like a tough place to love. Established by the Santa Fe Railroad in 1907, the town sits on a flat, unremarkable stretch of high plains that has more in common geographically and culturally with west Texas than with Santa Fe, 200 miles to the northwest. The closest cities are about 100 miles away: Lubbock and Amarillo, Texas.

About 120 freights rumble through town every 24 hours on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line, past a tumbledown neighborhood of low-slung houses scattered along the tracks. The streets are dusty, broad and windswept. On the outer edges of the city, a crop of big-box stores and subdivisions is springing up. Dozens of large, pungent dairies ring Clovis, and red-dirt roads slice through fields of wheat and sorghum.

Beyond the irrigated farmland, an immense landscape stretches under the endless blue New Mexico skies. F-16s from Cannon roar overhead, perhaps on their way to practice missions at Melrose Bombing Range, 20 miles to the west, or off for a routine patrol of President Bush’s Crawford, Texas, ranch.

It was Clovis’ isolation that appealed to the Air Force in 1942, when it established one of its three "super aerodromes" just west of the city at what was then the Clovis Municipal Airport. After several configurations, it was officially named Cannon Air Force Base in 1957.

This scenario was repeated throughout the West during the years surrounding World War II, as the military built installations across the region — and Western communities grew increasingly dependent on those federal dollars. In 1941, the region’s "economy was stagnant, population growth had ceased, and the colonial dependence of the region on the older East pervaded most aspects of life," wrote Gerald Nash in The American West Transformed: The Impact of the Second World War.

The military saw opportunities in the vast, lightly populated parts of the West — places like Derby, Colo., where six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Army gave residents 13 days to abandon their homes, so it could build the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and manufacture chemical and incendiary weapons.

Over the next half-century, historian Donald Worster writes in Under Western Skies, "this region … would be dominated by the military-industrial complex ... its economic health would rise and fall with the prospects of the Pentagon and the Cold War."

New Mexico, perhaps more than other Western states, has retained this dependency. According to a study by the University of New Mexico, the state received a record $18.7 billion in federal money in 2003 — $10,000 per person. That’s four times the size of the state’s general fund. Of that, $5.8 billion "involved procurement by the Departments of Energy and Defense," according to the study.

Owen Lopez, executive director of the McCune Charitable Foundation in Santa Fe, believes this has harmed the state. He says the hundreds of millions of dollars poured into New Mexico each year to military bases and to Department of Energy facilities, such as the Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories, have inhibited private entrepreneurial efforts. "We have become a colony of the federal government, a banana republic," he says.

Clovis is spectacularly dependent on the Pentagon. Congress pours hundreds of millions of federal dollars into the town every year, and many people share in that windfall. Last year, local businesses landed lucrative contracts with the base, covering everything from dry-cleaning services (Sparkle Cleaners, $1,044,730), to packing and crating services (Moberly Moving & Storage Company, $392,680), to periodic cleaning of grease traps (Rocket Industries, Inc., $26,520), to runway approach lighting (Nick Griego & Sons Construction, $936,346).

The money has flowed because of the very tight relationship between the base, the local business community and New Mexico’s congressional leaders, especially senior Sen. Pete Domenici, R. Chad Lydick, owner of Lydick Engineering and Surveying, which has contracts with the base, is a member of the Committee of 50, a group of citizens that has lobbied on behalf of the base for 50 years. Lydick recalls how the committee would regularly help place "political inserts" into federal budget bills to fund construction projects at the base.

"We’d go to our congressional delegation and say, ‘The Air Force has got this in its five-year plan, but it’s several years out. Can you guys move this in and put it in the defense budget?’ And they would always do that."

Today, depending on whose numbers you use, Cannon Air Force Base is responsible for between 4,700 and 6,700 jobs. If the base closes, Curry County will immediately lose almost a third of its jobs and a regional payroll of $343 million.

Clovis School Superintendent Rhonda Seidenwurm says the public schools will suffer, too: They would lose around 1,250 children from Air Force families (out of 8,147 total students). She predicts additional losses of enrollment as local civilians lose jobs and relocate. "My best guess in a worst-case scenario would be (losing) about a third," she says. "We probably would be looking at closing three elementary schools. And possibly a junior high."

"I absolutely think that Clovis is too dependent on Cannon," says Beverlee McClure, president of Clovis Community College. She says the community has been working for the past several years to broaden its economic base, recently adding a call center and a cheese plant, each of which, she says, brings in about 150 to 200 jobs.

"But the closing of Cannon could impact us by (thousands of) jobs in one swoop," she says. "Do the math. We cannot recover fast enough to save some of the businesses."

Phones stop ringing

Realtor Gayla Brumfield already has a sense of what will happen if Cannon closes. The day after the announcement on May 13 that Cannon had landed on the list, her cell phone went silent. She had friends call to make sure it was working. To her dismay, it was.

"There were probably about 50 transactions that were under contract that fell through strictly due to the announcement," Brumfield says. "So even being on the conservative side, let’s say that represents between $5 (million) and $6 million in volume."

While buyers fled, sellers multiplied. In early 2005, Clovis had 120 homes on the market. By July, that number was 280 and rising. The military owns or otherwise controls around 2,000 houses in the Clovis region. According to Roy Seay, vice president at The Bank of Clovis, if all those homes flood the market after the base closes, it could take the local real estate market a quarter of a century to recover.

Seay has also had a glimpse of a post-base world. Within 30 days of the May announcement, employees of the U.S. Department of the Treasury flew to Clovis to have a friendly sit-down chat with him. They wanted to know the status of any loans with local businesses that do work at Cannon. Seay chuckles when he thinks of that day. "I bet someone in Washington said, ‘We better get out to Clovis and see what’s going on there.’ "

The visit made Seay anxious: How were his clients going to pay off their loans if Cannon was shuttered? He sent out questionnaires to 68 homebuilders in the area, asking, among other things, "If Cannon closes, how many employees will you have to lay off?" The total came to 410. "Will you be able to repay your loan?" Forty-two percent said yes. Thirty-eight percent said their businesses would fail altogether.

The announcement has had a chilling effect on construction, which has boomed in the last couple of years, due to low interest rates and the city’s push to attract development. Homebuilders stopped building spec houses; commercial developers found themselves in limbo.

People in Clovis are quick to tell you that military families and retirees provide more than just the obvious economic boost.

"Any community event, you’re going to see a leader from the military there," says Seay. "They may be a sergeant, they may be a colonel, they may be an enlisted person, but they’re involved in the community at all levels, from Little League to the Chamber of Commerce.

"I always felt that Cannon Air Force Base always provided an additional moral fiber to the community," he adds. "A lot of (the military folks) are faith-based. You know, a long time ago, it was said, ‘There’s no atheists in a foxhole.’ "

According to Cannon’s volunteer coordinator, airmen and their families provide approximately 70 percent of the volunteers for the local Big Brother/Big Sister program, and two-thirds of the volunteers for the local Court Appointed Special Advocate program, which looks out for children in the local courts system.

But not everyone belongs to the Cannon-Clovis mutual admiration society. Stray dissenting letters occasionally appear in the Clovis News Journal, which holds the printing contract for the weekly Cannon Air Force Base newspaper, Mach Meter. In a July 14 letter to the editor, Michael Richards, whose spouse is stationed at Cannon, wrote about the lines that divide the town’s people from those at the base: "My young son played youth football for the base team. And we were always booed or hounded by the town’s parents. And now that Cannon is on the closure list, and the town is thinking about the dollar, everyone is all of a sudden appreciative of our sacrifices."

An enlisted airman from the base, who wants to remain anonymous, says the closure can’t come quick enough; he hopes to be out of New Mexico by next March. "All we hear about is what a great place Clovis is to raise a family. As a single, enlisted man, Clovis is not a fun place to be. We get treated better in Amarillo."

Where does he hope to be posted next? "Anywhere but Clovis."

A full-court press

Cannon Air Force Base hardly looks like a place that is about to be closed down. The buildings are well-maintained, and some look brand-new. Over the past several years, tens of millions of dollars have been spent on base improvements. There is the new control tower completed in 2003, a new security command post completed in May of this year, and the year-old, 36,000-square-foot state-of-the-art fire station built by the Army Corps of Engineers and subcontractors.

Base officials are tight-lipped about the possibility of closure. "If that’s the (Defense Department) recommendation, then we salute smartly and carry on," says Capt. Andre Kok.

Nonetheless, with the day fast approaching when the BRAC commissioners release their final list of proposed closures to President Bush, three consulting firms are working around-the-clock to get Cannon off it. The city hired the Washington, D.C., lawfirm of DLA Piper to work directly with the commission. The state of New Mexico hired another Washington firm to work with BRAC commission staff, as well as a New Mexico company, Keystone International, to sift through — and find errors in — the thousands of pages of formulas the Pentagon used to evaluate Cannon.

The company has found some "errors" that have become part of the standard gossip around town these days. Even store clerks are quick to tell you that the Defense Department never considered the value of the nearby 66,000-acre Melrose Bombing Range, or took into account the area’s more than 300 days of perfect flying weather. They’ll point out that the savings to the Air Force from closing Cannon mysteriously rose from $1.2 billion to $2.7 billion in the few weeks right before release of the recommendations, and that "buildable acres" at the base were reported at 10.5 acres, instead of 368. And they’ll add that the military failed to factor in the New Mexico Training Range Initiative, which will soon open up supersonic air space in the state.

The climax of Clovis’ base-boosting efforts was the June 24 regional hearing, held in front of a packed auditorium at Marshall Junior High School. The entire New Mexico congressional delegation was present. En route to the meeting, the commissioners passed citizens who lined the streets, holding signs and waving American flags. As the six attending BRAC commissioners entered the auditorium, the crowd gave them the kind of standing ovation more common to rock stars than retired generals and politicians.

Only two non-public officials testified, both members of the Committee of 50. Local businessman Lydick laid out the state’s economic data: Thousands of jobs lost; hundreds of millions in payroll and contracts vanished. Bank of Clovis President Randy Harris told the commissioners that closing Cannon is "the wrong thing for the Air Force, the wrong thing for our country, and the wrong thing for the future of the men and women."

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson gave the closing remarks, warning, "The economy of this area would be so devastated that it might not survive."

Then Sen. Domenici made a final, impromptu plea to the BRAC commissioners. "Last remark: This is a poor state. You should know that. … But we’ve not been poor in spirit when it comes to wanting to help the military of the United States. … There is no state that has its arms more open. … You don’t find any base in New Mexico that has people marching (in protest), that has people saying, ‘We don’t want you.’ "

Plan B, anyone?

Clovis is not the only military town fighting for its life (see map at left). South Dakota is waging an equally fierce battle to keep Ellsworth Air Force Base open. The base, with its B-1 bombers, is the state’s second-largest employer.

In late July, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., proposed an amendment to the defense bill that would have required the return of U.S. troops from Iraq before Congress could sign off on any final base-closing plan. Domenici and fellow New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D, co-sponsored the bill. But they received an icy response from some members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The Bush administration quickly promised to veto any defense bill that delayed the BRAC process.

In Nevada, Hawthorne, a community of 3,800, is battling to keep the Army Ammunition Depot from closing. The 147,000-acre depot accounts for almost half of all area jobs. In May, the town held its Armed Forces Day parade. Locals wore T-shirts that said, "No BRAC — No Ghost Town — NO WAY!!"

Still, some experts say fighting closure is rarely the best strategy. Peter Kirsch, whose law firm in Denver represents city governments undergoing changes such as base closures, recommends that communities put the majority of their efforts into redevelopment plans — a Plan B, if you will — instead of paying big bucks to lobbyists to get off the list.

"Look at who’s on the committee. These are people who are political, but they are also people who understand the military. They know what mission they’re given," Kirsch says. "Look, if every single one of those base communities is successful (in getting off the list), what is the committee going to do?"

Kirsch was one of hundreds of eager consultants, lawyers, environmental engineers, investment partners, waste managers, government bureaucrats, land appraisers, public relations mavens and property-disposal experts who attended a convention in June, specifically designed for communities facing base closures. The city of Denver, which hosted the Association of Defense Communities annual convention, showcased several of its successful transitions from military installations to urban developments.

Front and center was Lowry Air Force Base, which was "BRACed" in 1991, leaving Denver with "a three-square-mile ghost town," according to Tom Markham, executive director of the Lowry Redevelopment Authority. Now, 12,000 people live there, there are 100 businesses, and there’s a "$4 billion economic benefit for the cities of Denver and Aurora," Markham said.

At the former Rocky Mountain Arsenal, touring attendees heard how the 27-square-mile Army site had been turned into a wildlife refuge. In 2007, it will house the future 20,000-seat stadium for the Colorado Rapids professional soccer team.

At a presentation at the former Fitzsimons Army Medical Center, the audience heard how the dusty hospital site was becoming a campus of hospitals and biotech facilities, including the $4 billion Colorado Bioscience Park. Paul Tauer, the former mayor of Aurora and a member of the Fitzsimons Redevelopment Authority, said the process of buying, cleaning up and developing Fitzsimons was a "traumatic process. You inherit a terrible detriment, (but you must) focus on opportunity, not calamity."

But cities have an easier time absorbing base closures than do rural areas like Clovis, where land values are relatively low and the kind of skilled labor force that attracts new industries tends to be hard to come by. In nearby Roswell, N.M., Walker Air Force Base closed in 1967. Three years later, the town’s population had dropped from 48,000 to 34,000.

"You either left or had to find some way to get by," says Seay, a Roswell native. "They still have not recovered. They would bring in a bus manufacturer and they’re there for maybe a year or two and suddenly they go bankrupt and they’re gone. They get another bus manufacturer and everybody gets a job, and two years later they’re gone."

If anyone has a Plan B for redeveloping Cannon Air Force Base, it is being kept under wraps. Committee of 50 member Lydick hints that there is a group working on redevelopment plans, but says, "You don’t want to send a message to the (Defense Department) that you’re throwing in the towel. We are trying to play it as strong as we can that we want to keep Cannon. And we do."

The day of reckoning

Two weeks after the regional meeting, Lydick is in his downtown office on 2nd Street. The mementos on his wall testify to his entree not only with Cannon, but also with the entire U.S. military establishment. There are signed grip-and-grin photos with such luminaries as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard B. Meyers; former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Gen. Joseph Ralston; former Vice President Dan Quayle; and the crews of Air Force One and the Thunderbirds. Commemorative golf balls from various base commanders rest in a glass case. Lydick recalls how he once got a ride in one of Cannon’s F-16s.

"It’s been a great time," he says.

And at this moment, Lydick believes the good times can continue. BRAC Chairman Anthony Principi sent a letter in early July to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, questioning Rumsfeld’s decision to include Cannon on the list.

"That shows that they came up with some questions on their own and they’re going back to the Department of Defense to specifically find out more about Cannon," Lydick says. "That’s extremely good news for us."

But days later, acting Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England pointedly defends the closing of Cannon; he downplays the military value of the base, and even says that the Melrose Bombing Range is "rudimentary." And there is more bad news. Two members of BRAC — James Bilbray of Nevada and James Hansen of Utah — say they will recuse themselves from the final vote on the fate of Cannon, thus eliminating two potential votes from the five needed to remove the base from the closure list. The two have removed themselves because of a conflict of interest: Some of the F-16s at Cannon would be parceled out to bases in their states.

With good news one day and discouraging news the next, cracks have begun to appear in the city’s optimistic veneer. Mayor Lansford, working at the pharmacy he owns, looks resigned. "You know," he says, "if someone’s got it in for us, then they have it in for us."

Even Lydick shows the strain. Until now, he has been cordial toward the Defense Department. But his good will appears to be wearing thin.

"If they do take it away from us," he says, "well … we’re going to want them out of there just as soon as we can get them out of there. Pack your shit and get it out."

 

Still, he manages a smile as he says it.

 

Stephen J. Lyons is the author of Landscape of the Heart and, most recently, A View from the Inland Northwest.