The jolting news arrived one year ago: Department of Defense officials had targeted Cannon Air Force Base for closure. The impact on our economy would be severe — more than 30 percent, many agreed.
We’ve fought hard since to save Cannon. Along the way, we’ve learned a lot of lessons — mostly about perseverance and resolve.
Today, thousands of “Operation: Keep Cannon” signs and stickers remain our most visible political statement.
Last year we learned the odds of Cannon staying open were astronomical. Only 15 percent of U.S. military installations on any Base Closure and Realignment list survive.
Our battle began with a massive letter-writing campaign. More than 10,000 letters and e-mails were sent to the BRAC Commission that would decide Cannon’s fate. Many missives touted the economic damage that could result; others trumpeted our clear skies and wide-open spaces as the best for training our nation’s pilots and air crews.
In a June 24 parade and BRAC hearing in Clovis, an overwhelmingly vocal majority turned out in support of Cannon. We were told the presentation ranked among the best the panel heard last spring and summer.
In August, debate took place in a nationally televised BRAC Commission hearing. The panelists were deciding the fate of each entity on the closure list. When Cannon’s turn came, back-and-forth testimony and debate took place amidst whispered conversations and phone calls from high-ranking political leaders, both before our eyes and out of sight and earshot in hallways and nearby offices.
We scored a partial victory. The Commission charged with reviewing DoD’s recommendations introduced us all to a new status: enclave.
The Pentagon was told to reassess whether a new mission fit Cannon, and to move the current F-16 mission. If a new mission couldn’t be found, Cannon would close in 2010.
Headlines reported Cannon was “Saved — for now.”
That vote sparked the effort that continues today. It is led by U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici and others in our congressional delegation, plus Gov. Bill Richardson and local leaders. They have worked diligently to convince the top defense and military officials that Cannon is an unfettered, cost-effective base capable of growing to sustain multiple new missions.
We’ve recently learned Cannon is on a short list of bases being considered to house special operations forces, for the Air Force and perhaps other branches of the military. A desert training environment fits obvious national security needs.
The military’s specific plans for Cannon’s future are probably a few weeks from being announced. But we know Boeing is in it. Company officials announced this month they will test robotic airplanes at the adjacent Melrose Bombing Range.
Air Force and Army personnel reportedly have been seen doing reconnaissance on base, diligently measuring spaces inside and out, counting electrical outlets and such. Some are also looking at and buying homes off base. They and spouses are checking out civilian job opportunities for spouses or asking about schools for their children.
Saturday’s Clovis News Journal and Portales News-Tribune published a story that area home sales rose 40 percent the past three months. “Of course it’s all speculation,” Portales real estate agent Doug Downs said, “but people seem hopeful Cannon will have a new mission.”
It’s still too early to declare “Operation: Keep Cannon” successful. What government gives it can always take away on a whim, as the past 12 months have reminded us.
But the spring in our steps is back.
Today, we’re not talking about real estate prices plummeting further. We’re wondering how Curry and Roosevelt counties can meet the challenges of expansion sooner rather than someday. We’re beginning to ruminate on what Plan B could look like so the transition for growth is orderly in the next two to three years. Transportation, housing, jobs, schools, city and county infrastructures and public safety are areas that need a new level of regional focus and cooperation. Frankly, those collective discussions need to occur with or without Cannon remaining open.
The past 12 months have reminded us of a lesson our ancestors in these agriculture- and train-based communities learned a century or more ago: In a land thought to be nearly uninhabitable, people survive and thrive not from a single economic source, but on several. When one sector or leg suffers, the others carry us forward.
Good weather and plenty of reasonably priced land for expansion are huge draws not just for the military today. They’ve been our enticements for decades already and are sure to do so for many more. We just must learn to better market this rural region as the place for the next sector of companies to come and grow too.