U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici R-N.M. speaks to the Air Force team that was visiting the Clovis and Portales communities Thursday during a meeting at Clovis Community College. (Photo by Eric Kluth)
By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer
Initial evaluations of the region by an Air Force team ended Friday with a debriefing at Cannon Air Force Base and a pledged timeline for a new base mission.
Air Force officials assigned to assess Cannon and its surrounding communities said their task should be complete by January. They said a new mission for Cannon could be recommended by next summer.
The team aims to complete a computerized report regarding Cannon by “early next year, and by summertime have a recommendation” for the base, said a spokesperson for the military team, Doug Karas.
The 12-member team, comprised of military officials and hired civilian experts, finished their four-day visit to the region Friday afternoon, although some remained in the area as per travel arrangements, Karas said.
During their visit, they toured region schools, the Plains Regional Medical Center, and other points of interest.
“Each of the people on the team are actually very excited about being involved in this project, about the ability to do something groundbreaking,” Karas said.
The Base Realignment and Closure Commission voted to keep Cannon open until 2010, and requested the Pentagon find a new mission for the base. The Pentagon initially recommended the closure of Cannon Air Force Base. That recommendation was reversed by the BRAC Commissioners. Such an outcome is unprecedented in the 17-year history of BRAC, Karas said.
U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said he expects a recommendation from the Pentagon on Cannon’s future within months, but he urged residents to be patient.
“What we need to do is find a new mission,” he said. “It might take a little while.”
Domenici and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., have led efforts to ensure that new and ongoing military construction projects at Cannon remain viable as a new mission is sought for the base.
They’re also working on legislation that would keep personnel and assets, including F-16 fighter jets, at Cannon until a new mission is found.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has also been aggressive in efforts to save the base.
Richardson told Air Force officials on Friday he would call a special legislative session to save Cannon if necessary, according to a press release from his office.
“I have said from the beginning that I would do anything within my power to keep this base open. I let the Air Force officials know that the state would be prepared to do whatever it took in providing assistance to secure a permanent mission for Cannon,” Richardson said in a news release.
Richardson said a special legislative session — if necessary — could procure more funds for base-related activities, such as buying additional land or dealing with air quality or air space issues.
If the Air Force has not recommended a mission by summer, Richardson said he still would remain committed to finding a military purpose for the base.
“If they need more time, you have to give them more time,” Richardson said, from a cell phone as he boarded a plane departing from Clovis.
Richardson said he was pleased with the attitude of the fact-finding Air Force team.
“It seems they are taking the BRAC recommendation seriously,” Richardson said.