Base has huge economic impact

The Associated Press

Southeastern New Mexico suffered a body blow with the Pentagon’s announcement that it intended to close Cannon Air Force Base, part of the Clovis community for more than 60 years.

Supporters have vowed an all-out lobbying effort to save the base.

“It makes no sense to close Cannon. … To pick our base is almost ridiculous,” said Marshall Stinnett of Portales, a longtime supporter of Cannon and a member of the statewide Military Base Planning Commission.

New Mexico leaders lobbied for more than a year to try to keep the state’s four military installations off the closure list, citing their vast airspace, good weather for training and a lack of encroachment on bases — factors particularly true for Cannon.

Clovis banker Randy Harris, a member of the Committee of Fifty, made up of area leaders who support Cannon, was still stressing the base’s advantages on the eve of the release of the list.

He particularly emphasized the fact Cannon airspace is not being encroached upon, and how close Cannon lies to an unparalleled flight training range.

“When you fly a jet out of Cannon, within a few minutes you’re over the bombing range,” Harris said. “Most places, you have to use half your gas to get there, you can do one or two bombing runs, then fly home because you’re out of gas.”

The Air Force has been working to expand the training range around Cannon, and expects to make a decision late this year. Air Force officials have said the current airspace doesn’t allow for realistic, full-range training of the F-16 fighter jet aircraft stationed at Cannon.

The base — part of the Clovis community since World War II — has a huge economic impact on Curry and Roosevelt counties on the border of Texas in far eastern New Mexico. The other main industry in the largely rural area consists of dairy cattle and cheese factories.

A study prepared last year for the state Military Base Planning Commission by New Mexico State University said closing Cannon would mean a $98 million loss to Curry County.

By the Pentagon’s count, closing the base would cost 2,385 military jobs and 384 civilian jobs. The figures don’t take into account the jobs that would be lost in the area as a result of not having the base’s economic engine.

“I think one of the big problems if we do lose Cannon is the impact of money that circulates throughout or community through Cannon,” said Chris Bryant, owner of the Foxy Drive-In, a Clovis restaurant that’s been in business for nearly 50 years. “I think that’s one of the biggest issues.”

An Air Force fact sheet updated this month estimated the base’s total impact on Clovis at $211.2 million, including $116.2 million in military and civilian payroll, in fiscal 2003.

The Clovis City Council this spring approved $250,000 for lobbying in case Cannon ended up on the list. Military supporters in nearby Portales committed at least $50,000.

Cannon is home to the 27th Fighter Wing, made up of the 522nd, 523rd, 524th and 428th fighter squadrons. The wing’s mission is to maintain war-ready F-16s.

The Air Force has proposed increasing military airspace around Cannon from 2,600 square miles to 3,300 square miles. They also proposed letting pilots fly as low as 500 feet above the ground and at supersonic speeds at 10,000 feet rather than the current 30,000 feet above sea level — resulting in a threefold increase in sonic booms.

Stinnett fears the government will try to keep using Cannon’s new runway and bombing range while closing the base itself. But he said the community won’t stand for that.

“How can we develop the airspace if we don’t have the runway back? A commercial airplane wouldn’t come,” he said.

Cannon housed bombers in its early days. Then Cannon pilots flew F-100s in the 1950s and 1960s, deploying them to Florida during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and to Vietnam in 1964 and 1965.

In 1969, the base began switching to F-111s. Cannon began expanding in 1988 and in 1992, the base and its 27th Fighter Wing became part of the Air Combat Command.

When the Air Force retired the F-111 in 1995, Cannon got the F-16s. It also became home three years later to the 428th, a hybrid U.S. Air Force-Republican of Singapore Air Force fighter squadron.

A look at New Mexico’s military installations:

Cannon Air Force Base, Clovis

Economic Impact: Estimated $211.9 million. The base, established in 1942, has a military and civilian payroll of $116.2 million. It also has estimated it’s responsible for 770 area jobs worth $36.8 million. A February 2004 study said closing Cannon would cost Curry County an estimated $98 million.

Argument to keep: Cannon has room for another fighter wing and has quick access to nearby Melrose bombing range, which the Air Force is working to expand.

Kirtland Air Force Base, Albuquerque

Economic Impact: $512 million payroll, including $239.8 million military and $262.9 million civil service, plus a contractor payroll of $921 million. Kirtland estimates it’s responsible for 27,771 area jobs worth $944 million. The base, created in the late 1930s, employs 25,630, counting 13,924 contractor jobs. Kirtland estimated it brought $3.4 billion to Albuquerque’s economy and spent $2.5 billion on base-related construction, contracts and procurement from September 2002 to September 2003. The 2004 study said closing Kirtland would cost Bernalillo County $1.3 billion.

Argument to keep: Kirtland is the center of special operations training for the Air Force, has unique laser and military space research capabilities and is home to the Energy Department’s Sandia National Laboratories. It is widely reported as a major nuclear weapons depot, although the Pentagon neither confirms nor denies weapons storage at any facility.

Holloman Air Force Base, Alamogordo

Economic Impact: $264 million payroll. Holloman, with a force of 6,603, estimates it creates 2,204 indirect jobs with an estimated payroll of $83 million. The 2004 study said closing Holloman would cost Otero County $150 million.

Argument to keep: Holloman, established in June 1942, is home to the nation’s only stealth fighter wing and a German Air Force unit that has invested $130 million in facilities. The base, along with nearby White Sands Missile Range, has unique research and test facilities that would be costly to move.

White Sands Missile Range between Las Cruces and Alamogordo

Economic Impact: The range estimates its salaries and procurement are worth $1 million a day to the regional economy from El Paso, Texas, through Alamogordo and Las Cruces and as far away as Albuquerque. The range has more than 6,200 military, civilian and contractor employees. The 2004 study estimated closing the range would cost $400 million in Dona Ana County and an estimated 12,000 to 16,000 area jobs.

Argument to keep: 60-year-old White Sands is the only place in the nation where it’s possible to launch a long-range target missile, shoot in down and pick up the pieces — all within the range.