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City rebounding after base closure.

Blytheville Markets Facility Amid Government Red Tape

NOT LONG AGO, THE modest little town of Blytheville drew its sustenance from a long strip of concrete nearby. It was a runway operated by Eaker Air Force Base, home to 3,500 airmen and their winged weapons of the Cold War.

Then off they went, into the wild blue yonder, taking their $80 million impact with them.

While the Blytheville area has rebounded quite well with an explosion of jobs in steel and related industries, the deserted air base is still grounded, stuck for the time being in a bureaucratic waiting line. Until the federal government completes an appraisal and environmental baseline study of the base, none of the land can be turned over to the community for economic development.

In the meantime, all eyes are on the marketing effort.

With $350,000 in annual funding from the federal Office of Economic Adjustment, the community formed the Blytheville-Gosnell Regional Airport Authority, charged with planning the future of the new Arkansas Aeroplex and recruiting industrial and other tenants to fill the void.

There have been a few minor developments.

For the second year, American International Airways is leasing facilities from the authority to handle the U.S. Postal Service's Christmas season demand for overnight and two-day delivery services. The Christmas operations will temporarily employ 200-250 people, mostly from the local area.

Additionally, the private Emergency Response Training Academy has been operating on Eaker property since July, employing fewer than a dozen and hosting about 250 trainees since it opened.

In light of the base's tremendous potential, these developments are a drop in the bucket.

"There are some things that we'll never be able to replace," says Joe Gurley, who was county judge in Mississippi County for 12 years and is now executive director of the airport authority. "There were a lot of people here from all over the world who helped us culturally. We have missed the presence of the military people.

"But I think in the future, once we get the facility redeveloped, it will probably have a stabilizing effect to the community because there won't be the threat of closing."

Endless Possibilities

Eaker's potential is tremendous. The former base has 3,771 acres and its buildings feature 1.5 million SF, including space for hangars, aircraft maintenance, potential industry and offices.

Improvements totaling $80 million were recently made to the base, and many of the buildings are less than 5 years old. The former base housing includes 928 units in two-, three- and four-bedroom configurations.

The property also includes education and training facilities with dormitory space for 800 students. To top it off, there is a fitness center and a nine-hole golf course.

The airport itself has a runway 11,600 feet long and 300 feet wide; six hangars; a 1.8 million gallon above-ground fuel farm; a simulator building; and full instrumentation and lighting.

Five miles to the east is Interstate 55; Burlington Northern Railroad's north-south mainline runs through Blytheville; and there is access to the inland waterway system 15 miles east of the aeroplex.

If the community developers in Blytheville are looking for a source of hope, they can find it in Portsmouth, N.H., the former home of Pease Air Force Base.

Pease, like Eaker, was a Strategic Air Command base, but its impact on the surrounding community was even heavier. In 1989, the base had 3,460 military employees and 1,090 civilian employees with an estimated economic impact of $365 million.

The end came for Pease on March 31, 1991 -- 21 months before Eaker would close for good on Dec. 15, 1992.

Hard work has paid off for Portsmouth. Here's a sampling:

* The Pease Development Authority received 1,700 of the base's 4,300 acres as a "public benefit transfer," and that included the airfield and some revenue-producing acreage.

* Business Express, a regional airline, located its largest maintenance facility at Pease, adding 300 employees to the area. The airline is now discussing putting an engine maintenance facility at Pease.

* The U.S. State Department located its national visa and passport centers in the old commissary and base exchange, which will soon employ a combined 400.

* In March, Business Express -- a Delta Air Lines connection -- began flying 17 daily commercial flights out of Pease to locations on the eastern seaboard. Atlantic Coast Airlines, operating as United Express, is running three non-stop flights daily to Newark, N.J., and Pease also has a fixed-base aviation service.

* Celltech, a London biotechnology company, is constructing a manufacturing plant to employ 100 people on the base.

* An aviation theme restaurant is being opened at the former site of the base NCO Club.

Marketing Efforts

Blytheville isn't nearly as well situated as Portsmouth in terms of population mass, but the local developers seem to have prospects nonetheless.

Some of the property -- including the aprons, runways, taxiways and hangars -- is likely to be transferred to the airport authority. Buildings away from the runway will be handled through a negotiated sale although the airport authority could buy them at a reduced cost.

The city prefers targeting aviation-related industries, Gurley says. The possibilities include maintenance facilities, a cargo hub or airline refueling stations.

Gurley is talking with two companies that are researching possible locations for aircraft heavy maintenance facilities. He says the aeroplex has room for three or four of these facilities, and either prospect would create 300 to 400 jobs at an average wage of $15 to $16 per hour.

The airport authority also has had discussions with microfilm companies about storing their materials in the old ammunition storage areas at Eaker.

The Blytheville area has been up and down since the federal government announced the possible closure of the base on April 12, 1991. As uncertainty gave way to cold facts, everyone in the city was affected, most notably homeowners.

"Initially, when the base closed, it left quite a few houses on the market so values dropped from 10 to 20 percent in some areas of town," says John Logan, owner of Logan Real Estate Co. "Since then, with Nucor being located here, most of those surpluses have been eaten away, and values are close to where they were three to four years ago."

Nucor Corp. has been a big factor in bandaging the economic wound caused by the loss of Eaker. Since 1988, when the Nucor-Yamato Steel Co. mill came to the area, the company has created about 600 jobs. Another plant in the area, owned solely by Nucor, has created about 350 jobs. Furthermore, satellite industries are said to have added another 500 jobs.

But despite these gains, the former air base is still a focal point for development. Gurley says the government should complete its studies by the end of the year, and he hopes to start negotiating with potential tenants shortly thereafter.
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Title Annotation:Northeast Arkansas Focus; Blytheville, Arkansas
Author:Haman, John
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Oct 18, 1993
Words:1143
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