Base closure was punch that sent Selma’s economy to mat

By Mike Linn: Freedom Newspapers

SELMA, Ala. — For-sale signs and empty parking spaces are the norm on this city’s historic Water Avenue, where rotted wood hangs from second-story balconies and paint flakes from the buildings of long-forgotten businesses.
It didn’t used to be that way, but much has changed in Selma since 1976, the year Craig Air Force Base fell victim to the federal government’s Base Realignment and Closure process.
Today, there isn’t much similarity between Selma and Clovis, a city primed to lose one of its biggest assets, Cannon Air Force Base. But Selma 1976 and Clovis today are strikingly alike.
Selma’s Air Force base employed almost 3,000 civilian and military workers before it closed; Cannon has about 4,000 personnel now. Census figures show both cities have similar pre-BRAC populations of 30,000 to 35,000 residents. Even the distance from each city’s downtown to its prospective bases — about 8 miles — is the same.
But since closure, Selma’s population has declined by almost 35 percent. And while there are many factors that have contributed to the city’s economic demise, community leaders agree the base closing was the punch that sent Selma’s economy to the mat.
“All of this,” Selma Mayor James Perkins said recently while driving down Water Avenue, “had something to do with the base closure.”
While Selma and Clovis are different in many ways, the cities’ history with the Air Force is on a collision course toward the same ending. Statistics show that 85 percent of the Department of Defense’s recommendations to close or realign bases come to fruition.
Clovis leaders and the community have rallied in an effort to keep Cannon operational. Residents have sent scores of letters to BRAC commissioners. And city officials and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson have allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars for lobbyists to fight the Pentagon’s recommendations.
If closed, the communities of Clovis and Portales would stand to lose more than 4,700 direct and indirect jobs, assuming there’s no economic recovery, according to Department of Defense.
That has community leaders on edge.
Upon hearing the recommendations, Clovis leaders immediately found flaws in the DoD’s reasoning to shut Cannon down. An airspace expansion project that would allow pilots to train lower and faster was not mentioned in the initial report. Moreover, the DoD incidentally told the Commission that Cannon has just one runway, when it has two.
Randy Harris, a Clovis banker who serves on the Committee of Fifty — a Cannon support group — said closing Cannon would be a serious mistake for the Air Force. It has no encroachment issues and some of the best military training airspace.
The problem, he said, is the DoD weighted encroachment issues at less than 3 percent of the total military value of a base, which in the past has been much higher.
“The bases that have encroachment issues now, those issues aren’t going to go away in 20 years, they’re going to get worse,” he said. “Cannon is the ideal base for training. The military won’t be able to replace un-encroachable airspace.”
There are several bases with severe encroachment issues not on the closure list, Harris said. Why they have higher military value than Cannon, he said, is mind-boggling.
But Clovis is among several communities in the country whose residents feel they have been slighted by the Pentagon’s poor judgment.
Jerry Irby, mayor of Marquette, Mich., said he felt the same way in 1993 when the DoD recommended closing K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base in his city of 20,714 residents. Leaders fought to keep the base open, but failed. The closure in September of 1995 resulted in the loss of 788 civilian and 2,354 military jobs, which immediately crippled the economy.
Unlike Selma, however, Marquette was able to build its population back. Marquette County, Marquette and other communities within the county formed the first Economic Development Conveyance, with the county pulling the purse strings.
The base’s nuclear weapons storage facility was transformed into a high-tech sawmill, which ships lumber throughout the Midwest. Other businesses at the base include garden and recreational prefab building manufacturing, food processing, computerized tool and dye design and aluminum product manufacturing.
The county also moved its airport to the base to create more business relocation there.
Just last year, Marquette was rated one of the Top 10 places to live in the United States, the mayor said.
Irby said the trick to rebuilding after losing the base was working with leaders of other communities that lost bases, listening to what they did right and building a specific plan.
“I would invite the mayor of Clovis to call me, to come visit us and look at our blueprint of what we did and were able to accomplish,” he said.
Irby said another key to success was the county gaining control of the base from the federal government, something Michigan’s congressman and U.S. senators helped attain quickly and at little cost.
In Selma, it was five years before the Craig Field Airport and Industrial Authority, a group formed to redevelop the former base, was able to purchase Craig for $2.5 million from the federal government. The base is currently used by a hodgepodge of businesses and organizations.
Nowadays, there are more grants for communities that lose bases, officials say, but much has changed since the 1970s.
Back then, there was no independent BRAC commission, either.
Longtime Selma City Councilwoman Jean Martin said it’s common knowledge in Selma why the base was closed — politics.
She said U.S. Sen. John Stennis, D-Miss., who had been in the U.S. Senate for 29 years by 1976, wanted to move Craig Air Force Base’s military to Columbus Air Force Base in Columbus, Miss.
“He was one of the most powerful senators in the country, if not the most powerful by then,” she said. “We all knew that was the reason.”
Stennis served in the U.S. Senate until 1989. He died in 1995.
Like Clovis leaders, Martin is an adamant defender of Craig Air Force Base, which at the time had the highest rated flight school in the Air Force, she said. When it shut down, the city of Selma, in a sense, began to shut down as well.
The once thriving downtown district slowly went vacant, and the roar of airplanes no longer interrupted movies at the drive-in theater.
But what hurt the community the most, Martin said, was losing the living and breathing parts of Selma, the people.
“Air Force families started selling homes. They no longer taught Sunday school, attended PTA meetings, coached Little League or came to the beauty shop,” she said. “That was the worst part of it all — losing part of the Selma family.”

Mike Linn is a former staff member of the Clovis News Journal and Portales News-Tribune. He now works for the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama.