The Associated Press
ROSWELL — A third of Roswell’s population left in 1967, leaving closed businesses and schools and empty homes.
But by most accounts, Roswell eventually recovered from the closing of Walker Air Force Base thanks to the foresight of city leaders, who developed plans to use the base and diversify the city’s economy.
Their work could serve as a template for the eastern New Mexico communities of Clovis and Portales as they face the possibility of losing Cannon Air Force Base.
The Pentagon has recommended closing the base by 2011, though Clovis officials and New Mexico’s congressional representatives vow they’ll fight to save the base.
Those who remember the closing of Walker Air Force Base on July 1, 1967, have some advice for Clovis.
“My advice would be to have them concentrate on alternative industry that can take up the slack if the base is closed, if they want to prevent a mass exodus,” said Roswell planning director Zachary Montgomery.
Julie Shuster, who now directs the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, remembers the changes to her hometown when she was in high school.
“I do remember the vacant houses, friends that were gone, and how crushed everyone was,” Shuster said. “It was just a major slap.”
The same day that the Roswell Daily Record reported the news of the base’s impending closure in 1965, it also wrote about the assembly of groups to study possible future uses for the 5,000-acre base.
By the time the base closed, 6,000 of Roswell’s 18,000 homes stood vacant.
Roswell’s population peaked at 48,000 in 1967, before the base closed, but dropped to less than 34,000 three years later. The town’s population in the 2000 Census was 45,293.
Roswell’s natural gas and oil extraction industry and dairy and agricultural businesses slowed the exodus somewhat, Montgomery said.
“Had it not been for those, Roswell would have dried up and become a ghost town,” he said.
City planners divided the air base, which the federal government gave to the city, into four chunks, said William Brainerd, an attorney who served on the planning committees. In 1968, Brainerd became mayor of Roswell.
Eastern New Mexico University received several barracks, offices and other buildings and now has a Roswell campus for 4,000 students.
A large hospital complex was given to the state, which established the 41-bed New Mexico Rehabilitation Center.
A housing authority created a plan for the 800 concrete block base homes. Today, many are still occupied by private owners, but some have fallen into disrepair. The city is looking at rehabilitating the area.