Leaders focused on keeping Cannon open

Lyn Henderson, of Clovis, was on hand for Saturday’s town hall meeting for Cannon Air Force Base Saturday at Clovis-Carver Public Library. Henderson, a widow of a 28 1/2 year veteran, said they chose to retire in Clovis. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

In the face of staggering statistics — 85 percent of bases recommended for closure by the Department of Defense are indeed shuttered — area leaders are holding tightly to the idea that Cannon Air Force Base can beat the odds.

Many are unwilling to even discuss a contingency plan.

“Frankly,” said Mayor David Lansford from his Roden-Smith Pharmacy office, “I’m not interested in talking about what would happen if Cannon were to close. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to even think about it. We have a task at hand.”

The task: “Operation Keep Cannon.”

It is a phrase posted on the doors of countless businesses and homes in Clovis, broadcast in neon letters from more than one digital billboard; proving Lansford is not alone in his resolve. New Mexico state, city, and county leaders embody the upbeat, put-up-your-dukes attitude, while crying out in unison: There is no need at this time for a Plan B.

“I think right now it is appropriate for all efforts of our community to be focused on getting Cannon off the BRAC list,” County Manager Dick Smith said after briefly mentioning the role of the Department of Defense’s Office of Economic Adjustment in case Cannon is closed at a Friday County Commission meeting.

USA Today reported recently that eastern New Mexico officials are so focused on keeping Cannon that they turned down a $175,000 government grant intended to help communities losing a military facility in this year’s BRAC process.

The report is true, though Chase Gentry, executive director of the Clovis Industrial Development Corp., said it is misleading.

Gentry said the USA Today article referenced a Department of Defense Advance Planning Grant. Application commencement began last summer, but Gentry said funds are still available. Although planning for the arrival of a new business usually takes 12 to 18 months, Gentry said planning for Cannon’s departure now, by applying for grants or forming a redevelopment committee, would be premature.

Committee of Fifty member Randy Harris, who recently visited the nation’s capitol to lobby on Cannon’s behalf, said $450,000 in taxpayer money raised to save Cannon could be used to formulate a course of action should Cannon remain on the BRAC list. But that plan he said will only be drafted after the Sept. 8 list goes to President Bush. Even then, he said, there will be no rush — the Air Force has up to six years to vacate the property.

“We will do whatever is humanly possible,” Harris said, “and if by the end of June we are not successful in getting off the list, we will have ample time to do what’s necessary for Plan B.”

Officials’ failure to consider a Plan B earlier causes concern for at least one Clovis resident. Local Emergency Planning Committee member Bob Baker envisions a quickly shrinking timeline to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

“Why not take the same approach to this as we would to a natural disaster?” Baker said. “Between now and September (when the BRAC commission announces its list) there could be a whole lot of leg work done … The early bird gets the worm.”

On Baker’s side are lessons from Texas’ past.

On April 5, 1995, citizens of Lubbock lined the sidewalks, waving banners in support of Reese Air Force Base for a visit by BRAC commissioners. That base, as recommended by the Department of Defense, officially shut its doors two years later.

Now, it is host to 11 businesses. Executive Director of Reese Technology Center Eric Williams said detailed planning saved Lubbock from eminent disaster.

“We took the approach of dual planning, and that worked for us,” Williams said.

According to its Web site, the Lubbock Reese Redevelopment Committee was created just two weeks after Reese was recommended for closure. Because the city started planning early, Williams said, businesses started moving in only a year after the base packed up and moved. The process of handing over the base to a redevelopment authority, as required by federal law, is extremely complicated said Williams — the land is leased to the redevelopment authority for years. Eventually, he said the deed is relinquished, but mineral and water rights always belong to the government. To avoid being bogged down in red tape, Williams said, it is important to stay focused and plan early.

“I would say use the time now so you don’t loss momentum. You want to show people that yes, we are going to fight,” Williams said, “However, if it doesn’t work, we have a plan.. We won’t have to start from ground zero.”