Saved for Now

Marlena Hartz :Freedom Newspapers

The federal debate that traced a course for Cannon Air Force Base was like the entire Base Closure and Realignment process — a lesson in patience and pendulation.

The Commission early Friday afternoon did settle on a plan to spare Cannon from the BRAC list for closure — sort of. The plan strips the base of its F-16s, scattering them across the nation, and asks the secretary of defense to consider a future mission for the base. If Donald Rumsfeld fails to do so, the base will shutter as planned by Dec. 31, 2009.

Commissioners, in a series of impassioned speeches, said the Cannon call was a close one because they had to weigh military value against an economic impact that some said will cripple eastern New Mexico.

Four commissioners voted to keep Cannon open as a training base, but five were needed to remove the half-century-old facility from the closure list. Two commissioners recused themselves, citing conflicts of interest with issues in their home states.

Six commissioners approved the proposal ordering the Air Force to seek a new mission for Cannon or close it after 2009.

More than once this week, the nine-member panel delayed making what they called their hardest BRAC decision. The Cannon vote was originally scheduled for Thursday, then moved to early morning Friday, but when the commissioners actually reached Cannon discussions, amendments were proposed, emotions flared and the decision was delayed twice more.

Whatever the future holds for Cannon, a lengthy limbo will precede it.

Clovis Chamber of Commerce President Stacey Martin said it could take two or three years to relocate Cannon’s planes. The base will slowly diminish in capacity and become an “enclave,” not the first one born from the BRAC process. The decision essentially deactivates the base, retaining it as property of the military.

The term “enclave” is a fairly new one, said Capt. Andre Kok of Cannon’s Public Affairs office. He, however, was unsure exactly what the decision would mean for the base in terms of personnel numbers and activity, as were the members of the save-Cannon team.

BRAC Commissioner Samuel Skinner, who proposed the Cannon amendment, said enclave status would stretch on until Dec. 31, 2009, when it would be “de-established.” If Cannon then has no future mission possibilities, its doors will close officially.

The decision, tensely anticipated at the Clovis-Carver Public Library by local officials and a smattering of community members, elicited confusion for some, a sense of relief and hope for others.

“My first reaction was ‘I think we’ve just been kissed by our sister’ — meaning I am not sure what just happened,” said Clovis City Commissioner Randal Crowder, among many who simply did not know how to initially respond to the BRAC news.

“I feel like we sold ourselves a wonderful future,” said Richard Thomas, 56, a retired Air Force member and 20-year resident of Clovis. “This is just the beginning of a new page in and around the western edge of the panhandle. I think we will get the Joint Strike Fighter,” said Thomas, in reference to the possibility that Cannon could house the state-of-the-art F-35 jet.

Clovis and Portales leaders met the news with stoicism.
They didn’t wave any pompons, but they hailed Friday’s amendment as a partial victory, and although admitting to bouts of weariness, they said the fight to save Cannon will continue with vigor in the coming months.

“It’s been a long 106 days,” said Clovis Mayor David Lansford, a save-Cannon water bottle poised in front of him.

“In that four- to five-year period,” he added, optimistically, “community leaders and the New Mexico delegation will,” he underscored, “find a mission to occupy the base.”

• If the president approves decisions handed down this week by Base Closure and Realignment commissioners as expected, the Department of Defense must find a new mission for Cannon or the base will close in 2010.
• The current fleet of F-16 fighter jets will be leaving, along with personnel, possibly as early as 2007, Cannon backer Terry Moberly said. All of the planes could be gone by 2008, though officials are not clear how many, if any, personnel might stay behind. The base currently employs more than 4,000 active-duty members and civilians, including 270 officers, 3,201 enlisted airmen, and about 600 civilians, according to Cannon public affairs.
• The Washington Committee, a group of Cannon supporters who have spearheaded efforts to save the base, will meet with its paid consultants, via telephone conference on 9 a.m. Monday. That will put in motion efforts to convince the Department of Defense to find another mission for Cannon, committee member Randy Harris said.