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L.A. AIR BASE CLOSURE COULD BE HUGE BLOW.

Byline: Dana Bartholomew Staff Writer

Fear is running high among local officials that the Defense Department on Friday will recommend closing the Los Angeles Air Force Base in the South Bay - a potentially crippling blow to the regional economy and the high-tech research infrastructure.

Experts generally were pessimistic Wednesday despite months of lobbying by officials who have tried to persuade the Bush administration to preserve the 51-year-old base in El Segundo. The Pentagon is expected to issue a preliminary decision on which of the nation's 425 bases, including facilities in the Antelope Valley and Ventura County, should be closed in cost-cutting moves.

``We're very nervous - the rumor mill is somewhat ominous. ... We're going to get hit,'' said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the nonprofit Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

``It's between a 60 percent and 70 percent certainty.''

Los Angeles AFB is the only Air Force base without a runway. It has no hangars and no tarmac lined with sleek bombers or fighter jets.

Instead, it houses the brains of a half-century of high-tech military and aerospace experience. Its Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) develops advanced space-based radar and communications systems, as well as ballistic missiles, rockets and satellite.

Located in two clusters of office buildings near Los Angeles International Airport, the base manages $60 billion in military aerospace contracts.

It also employs 4,500 rocket scientists, engineers and other seasoned defense workers - of whom up to 80 percent are expected to quit should the base move to Colorado Springs, Colo. - a brain drain some say would take the Air Force decades to recover from.

Los Angeles AFB proponents argue that its loss would severely impact the local and state economies, but more importantly, compromise national security and the war on terrorism.

``Moving SMC risks poking a hole in our national security,'' according to Rep. Jane Harman, D-El Segundo, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, a member of the Homeland Security Committee and a leader in the fight to protect Los Angeles AFB.

``We rely heavily on the mission of the center and its support structure that's in place.''

The defense industry network in Los Angeles - including resources at the California Institute of Technology and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena - cannot be replaced, she and others say.

When Boeing transferred its space shuttle engineers from Southern California to Houston prior to the Columbia explosion in 2003, most of the workers quit. Investigators later blamed inexperienced replacements for contributing to the disaster.

The nondescript Los Angeles AFB in the South Bay generates 50,000 high- wage jobs worth $2.45 billion in Los Angeles County, according to an LAEDC study. Statewide, its economic impact is estimated at $16 billion.

Loss of the base would cost Southland cities $17.1 million a year in tax revenues and the state $312.1 million, officials said.

``We obviously don't think that this is a matter of civic pride,'' said Joe Aro, executive director of the South Bay Economic Development Partnership and a co-chairman of the LAAFB Regional Alliance, which has collected nearly $1 million in public and private funds to champion the base's cause.

``It's a matter of national security, the success of our military mission and the success of our space program.''

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld means to cut a quarter of the nation's military infrastructure thought superfluous to fighting terrorism and limited wars.

Proponents of moving Los Angeles AFB to the Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs say it's a perfect match that could save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year.

They also say Colorado Springs' 324 days of sunshine, a military culture stemming from the nearby Air Force Academy and Fort Carson Army base and low-cost housing - with homes averaging $150,000 to $250,000 - would better serve base employees.

``We would love to have it,'' said Jeff Markovich, vice president of military affairs for the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, whose city spent $200,000 on a feasibility study.

``I think the Springs would be a logical choice, because we're a military town, the community loves us and it's just a great place to live.''

The Pentagon has figured the cost of moving the base at $750 million.

Despite the near-loss of Los Angeles AFB during base closures 10 years ago, some think it might withstand this year's assault. If not, proponents say they will appeal to the next level.

``I am cautiously optimistic,'' said LAEDC Chief Financial Officer Lynn Hogan, a former lobbyist in Washington, D.C. ``I don't ascribe any weight to the rumors.''

Added the South Bay's Aro: ``We're very positive. The rumors I've heard, when you check the sources, it's 'My cousin knows a guy who drives a cab, with relatives in Oklahoma.'''

Dana Bartholomew, (818) 713-3730

dana.bartholomew(at)dailynews.com

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 12, 2005
Words:814
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