Air Force officials to tour Clovis

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Fingers that have been crossed tightly for months are slowly loosening, due to this week’s Air Force team visit to eastern New Mexico. As infrastructure assessments of Cannon Air Force Base will bleed into civilian areas today, Plains Regional Medical Center Administrator Brian Bentley said he is feeling relief.

Members of an Air Force personnel team will tour PRMC, along with Colonial Real Estate, Clovis Municipal Schools and Clovis Community College in order to complete a comprehensive sketch of Cannon and surrounding community assets.

“It’s a very positive sign that they (the assessment team) are coming to ask us if we can accommodate additional people as opposed to asking us what the impact would be if the base shrunk,” Bentley said Wednesday afternoon, adding confidently his hospital can accommodate an influx of patients.

The team visited Cannon Air Force Base on Tuesday and the Melrose Bombing Range on Wednesday, marking the start of an unprecedented process, said Doug Karas, spokesperson for the Air Force team.

“This is the first step in a brand new process,” Karas said. “It’s about connecting with the community and collecting information.”

A federal commission rejected the Pentagon’s proposal to shutter Cannon Air Force Base in August, instead requesting the Department of Defense find a new mission for the base. That decision also sent Cannon’s three F-16 squadrons elsewhere.

The commission voted to close the base if it does not have a mission by 2010.

But as early as January, this team will condense information about Cannon into an interactive computer report, Karas said. The report will then be accessible to multiple government organizations so that the most suitable mission for Cannon can be easily found, Karas said.

“Our goal is not to limit this to a new Air Force mission,” Karas said.

He said a new inter-agency mission or a government organization outside the military could occupy the base.

Formed by newly appointed Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne, the Air Force team is comprised of more than 10 members, Karas said. Those include Air Force Brig. Gen. Ron Ladnier, Lt. Col. Dave Johansen, and Lt. Col. Mike Brown, along with various data collection, infrastructure, and telecommunications experts hired by the Air Force.

Randy Harris, member of a local group that lobbies on behalf of the base, was present for Melrose and Cannon tours. He said he will also accompany the team on tours today. Though Harris said he views speculation about what mission may come to Cannon as counterproductive, he said the team seemed impressed with the effectiveness and the quality of the range, as well as with Cannon’s efficiency.

The role of the team, he added, is not to critique the base, but to simply compile a list of its assets — a far cry from the goal of the not too distant 2005 Base Closure and Realignment round, Harris said.

“What is important to them (the team) are the capabilities of today and the future — a look at what assets exist to support military operations in this part of the world. Those assets include not only what is on the base but what is outside the base: Medical facilities, good education, and good housing to take care of the men and women of the military,” Harris said.

But the ultimate voice in deciding what, if any mission, is suited for the base belongs not to this team, but to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Karas said.