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Blast from the past.

For Sale Cheap: Oddly shaped office building, complete with 8-foot-high chain link security fence, razor wire, video surveillance, space for vast over-the-horizon radar equipment to track incoming missiles and separate 10-car garage. Located on scenic apex of the Edwards Plateau. Near schools, recreation and good Dairy Queen.

Interested? Call the El Dorado Chamber of Commerce or just about anyone in this small town of 1,500 or so. They're trying to find someone--anyone, really--who'll put a business in the now-abandoned, once-highly-secretive Pave Paws site about 50 miles south of San Angelo, Texas.

"About the only thing it's used for these days is for teenagers to go parking," said Vickie Williams, chamber secretary, El Dorado museum curator, and born-and-bred native of the tiny town. The site was once home to a massive phased array warning system, part of a series of similar sites throughout the United States linked to provide early wanting of a massive missile attack. The Air Force closed the site in the mid-1990s.

Now empty and carefully patrolled by local police, the complex stands waiting for a new occupant like a mothballed wedding dress waiting for a bride. It's in remarkably good condition for an abandoned building in the middle of Texas sage country. The fences are sound. The glass on the guard shack is intact. Even the signs warning off possible intruders are standing firm and straight.

The site is perched at the highest point on the Edwards plateau, a kind of swell in the heart of Texas. It's visible for miles around, and Williams remembers seeing the 1 million kilowatts of light beaming from the l00-foot radar array at night when she'd come home from college for a visit.

"I remember standing outside our house about five miles from the tower and being able to clearly see the local sheriff writing a speeding ticket on the old Angelo highway below the tower," she said. "You could see that light from just about everywhere."

From a manning perspective, closing the site didn't cause much of a hiccup for the Air Force. Roughly 40 airmen based at Goodfellow Air Force Base made the trek every day via bus to run operations at El Dorado. But for the town, the loss of not only the Air Force people but also jobs for local civilians caused a substantial dent in the economy.

"Those airmen ate here, shopped here, did things in the town," Williams said. "They were part of the family. And when our people working up there lost their jobs, that was painful."

The empty site is now a kind of billboard to a different lifetime. Once, the people of El Dorado considered themselves a link in the national defense of the United States. The site was a treasure, a kind of patriotic monolith for the townspeople to point and say, "We're doing our part."

The closing was a good thing from that perspective, Williams said. "We won the Cold War. The threat just wasn't there anymore. I guess the job was done."

But that still leaves the empty building towering above a small town one bad day away from blowing away. A business in the building would not only pump money into the economy, it would give the people something to mark the town's existence in the lonely stretches between San Angelo and San Antonio.

And so, finding a suitable business to take over the Air Force's forgotten complex is a bit of a quest for the town. The local judge rings phones. Others shake hands and smile and lead businessmen on tours through the complex.

But this is no desperate search. Not just any business will do.

"We want someone who will bring vision to the area," she said. "We'd like to see a big business move in, one that has some backing and financial ability to hire people and thrive out here."

She looked out the window of the old storefront that serves as the museum. She couldn't see the tower from her vantage spot, but she had a bright glow about her.

"We'll find someone." With a laugh she added, "There's going to be someone who needs a 100-foot radar tower and adjoining office space."
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Airman's Notebook
Author:Kinkade, Mark
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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