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The day the base stood still.

Facing the imminent closure of England Air Force Base, the community of Alexandria, Louisiana, turned adversity to advantage.

Flying Tigers and Fighting Falcons no longer split the air with gentle thunder. The "stealthy" sounds of flight have vanished from the night. On December 15, 1992, England Air Force Base closed, and a 40-year relationship with its host city ceased. The "peace dividend" arrived in Alexandria, Louisiana.

As America grapples with the difficult task of defense conversion, Alexandria offers hope to many rural and small urban areas devastated by domestic military base closures. This is not a story of unique, not-to-be-repeated events but of a process that galvanized a community to embrace the future. It is a tale of citizen involvement and prudent city fiscal management.

Alexandria, LA: A Military Heritage

Alexandria is a city of 49,188 persons, nestled in the Red River valley and surrounded by rich agricultural and timber lands. Two hundred years of development tides have enriched the city with every significant ethnic, cultural and religious group in Louisiana. Until recently, Alexandria had been isolated by a network of substandard, two-lane highways. The transportation-stifled economy also missed the "oil boom stimulus" due to the lack of oil in the region. Thus, Alexandria's regional economy depended on a triad of agriculture/timber, general government employment and active military bases. In the late 1980s, with cutbacks in general government and declining agriculture prices, the military presence was vitally intertwined with the local economy.

Alexandria's relationship and experience with the military runs deep. During the Civil War, a retreating Union Army burned the town to the ground. World War I brought a massive construction program with numerous induction/training camps being built in the Alexandria area to process units of America's first world-class army. Prior to World War II, massive training maneuvers were held surrounding Alexandria. It was not unusual to see men who would become great national heroes, such as Eisenhower and Patton, resting on the front porch of Alexandria's Bentley Hotel. WWII saw the activation of four major infantry camps and two airfields in Alexandria's vicinity.

After WWII, the camps and bases were closed. Alexandria's economy declined. In the minds of the community, there was a clear relationship between the presence of the military and prosperity.

In 1954, the Air Force decided to open a "permanent" air base in Alexandria. With that pledge of permanence, the City of Alexandria donated the bulk of the acreage that became England Air Force Base. From that time forward, the constant presence of Air Force personnel and equipment in Alexandria was normal. The community saw the planes off to Vietnam, Panama and Saudi Arabia. Alexandrians worked, worshiped and played with the 3,500 military personnel at the base. Loss of a pilot sent the town into mourning. They were Alexandria's friends and neighbors.

In 1989, Alexandria received a wake-up call. The Air Force had decided that close air support of ground troops needed a hot, fast, sexy new airplane. The A-10 "Wart-hog" then in use was big, green, slow and tough. Coincidentally, the Air Force started studying small bases in its Tactical Air Command for possible closure. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, was nominated for closure because of its A-10 configuration and civilian building encroachment. Alexandria, with its A-10 configuration, was notified that its base had been named as an alternate to the closure of Myrtle Beach. The Pentagon explained that it was necessary to study all alternatives. The notice informed the city that within 30 days there would be a public hearing in Alexandria to hear why England should not be closed.

Turning Fences into Consensus

That notice was the seminal event that ultimately has resulted in Alexandria's position of strength today. The community, which, like any community across this country, had been historically split over many issues, found a common issue, a reason to turn fences into consensus. Rallying around an ad hoc coordinating group formed from members of the Chamber of Commerce, the community responded. In less than 30 days, a massive community effort generated a 200-page case detailing why England should not be closed, commitments from all state and federal elected officials to be at the public hearing, enlistment of businesses to encourage employees to attend and coordination of testimony. On the night of the public hearing in the 1,500 seat convention hall, an overflow crowd caused the fire marshal to close the building at 1,500. Standing in the halls, on the sidewalks and in the streets, supporters of England numbered more than 5,000.

Community teams engaged the Pentagon's base closure economic impact consultants and, over a period of months, supplied them information on the city's governmental operations and the local economy: bond ratings, operating budgets, housing vacancies, bankruptcies, etc. Officials from every government district or agency fed data into the consultants' all-powerful computer economic model. The study examined a 50-mile "region of influence" surrounding the base, using a sophisticated computer forecasting model whose methodology and consistency in data commanded widespread credibility in the private and public sectors.
Exhibit 1
CLOSURE OF ENGLAND AIR FORCE BASE
PROJECTED IMPACT ON REGIONAL INCOME(1)
(Dollars in thousands)

 Regional Regional Regional Regional
 Income Income Income Income

Projections 1990 1994 1997 2000

With base $4,318 $4,674 $4,965 $5,172
Without base $4,318 $4,421 $4,596 $4,811
Income loss $ 0 ($253) ($369) ($361)
Percent of 0.0% -5.4% -7.4% -7.0%
income loss

Note

1 Pentagon-sponsored projections developed in 1990.


The model generated answers that supported the community's fears that the economic loss to the region would be a staggering blow. It projected, as shown in Exhibit 1, that the regional income would decline by $253 million, or 5.4 percent, in 1994 to the largest drop of $369 million, or 7.4 percent, in 1997. The model also projected a total loss of 6,393 jobs, information that was considered locally as very serious since Louisiana had one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. A prominent state economist asserted that Alexandria would lose 10 years of previous economic growth.

Community fears were aggravated by additional factors:

* Alexandria officials feared loss or significant curtailment of the city's low-income federal funds due to the resulting loss of population.

* Central Louisiana has a 16,000-person military retiree population. Some reports indicated that an out migration of as many as 10,000 of these retirees was not out of the question. It was feared that a large-scale migration would have a double impact on the city because of its sales tax dependence and full-service utility system.

* Alexandria feared economic panic, with businesses and individuals overreacting to the potential base closure that they would create an economic catastrophe. This "steamrolling" effect was construed to be as dangerous to the economic health and viability of the region as the direct impact of the closing of the base.

The Base Closure Commission

As Alexandria dealt with these issues, Congress decided the process of base closure was not fair and created a special Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which was to evaluate every American military base in the world and decide its fate. There would be three rounds of base closure--1991, 1993 and 1995--to produce at the end of the last base closure period a lean base structure for the future.

The announced process was to work in the following fashion. Each service recommends to the Secretary of Defense proposed bases for closure. After reviewing and modifying the list, the Secretary of Defense makes the list public and forwards recommendations to the Base Closure Commission, which holds public hearings on proposed bases to be closed. The commission may add bases to the list. The commission makes a decision on each base and forwards these recommendations to the President, who must either accept or reject the entire list. Congress must accept or reject the list without amendment.

Alexandria realized, after its brush with closure a year earlier, that its name would be high on the list. Therefore, in May 1990 the community converted its Chamber of Commerce-based ad hoc organization into a coalition arrangement composed of the city, the county and the chamber. This change of community organizational structure was not to be the last. The changing base closure process led to Alexandria's creation of an innovative "virtual organization" structure in which the core organization's size and lifespan were dictated by need. Each core organization was surrounded and supported by numerous ad hoc citizen committees. Armed with a draft copy of the Air Force report that had been shelved when the closure commission process got underway, the community went to work strengthening its case and lobbying to keep England off the list.

The Secretary of Defense was scheduled to release the proposed list on August 2, 1990, but the war against Iraq and the Desert Shield operation delayed the base closure announcement until 1991. It was at the outbreak of those hostilities when a delegation from Alexandria, while visiting Pentagon officials in Washington, came to the conclusion that sooner or later, England Air Force Base was to be closed.

A Dual-track Strategy

Amid headlines of war, community leaders in Alexandria made a fateful decision: the community needed to pursue a unique dual-track strategy. First, if the base appeared on the list, there would be a full-fledged defense to save the base. Second, very quietly, a small group of persons would assemble information into a "community transition survival plan" in case of closure.

While seeing England's air wing, the Flying Tigers, off to Saudi Arabia, the community reorganized its efforts to fit the newly perceived needs and created an intergovernmental group named "England 2000." Its formation was possible because of the outstanding success at building consensus and relationships in the previous nine months.

England 2000, representing every faction and political subdivision, began its work of quietly telling the community of the potential impact of England's closure. It also began the difficult work of educating the community on the proposed multi-year cuts in the defense budget. Numerous presentations were made to civic clubs, veterans groups, professional organizations and mass media.

This information was dispensed in Alexandria against a backdrop of America mobilizing the air campaign that was the beginning of Desert Storm. Flying into the teeth of that storm were England Air Force Base's A-10s. At the end of the war, the wing returned home to Alexandria, and England's 48 planes were credited with destroying more than 300 Iraqi armored vehicles.

Finished with Iraq, the Pentagon dropped its domestic bombshell: Following the timetable laid down by the Congress of TABULAR DATA OMITTED the United States, the Secretary of Defense nominated a list of bases to be closed in the first round of base closing. England Air Force Base in Alexandria, Louisiana, was on that list. For more than a year, in large and small groups, the impact of the proposed closure had been discussed; still the community recoiled in horror. The community could clearly see this was an event that threatened its life and fabric.

Immediate Budgetary Actions

At the time of this notification, the city was in its budget hearings for the upcoming fiscal year. Immediately, the mayor asked the city council for a seven-day delay to rework the proposed budget. This was necessary as the proposed budget included a $4.9 million, or 4.9 percent, level of growth in its operating funds, which included projected growth in sales taxes and other growth-oriented revenues, plus rate increases in its wastewater and sanitation systems.

The city revised its revenue projections to eliminate all growth and reduced expenditure requests slightly below the current level. All originally proposed capital outlay requests were re-examined and only those that could be justified at the highest priority were included in the amended proposal.

The decision also was made to develop a strategic plan to prepare for the impact of declining fiscal resources. Further, additional budget policies were adopted to monitor revenues monthly in case further budget reductions were necessary. This initial fiscal response became the pattern that was to guide the city over the next two years.

Like all communities, Alexandria was notified that it could make its case to the base closure commission within 30 days of the announcement. In this instance, constant community organizing and educating paid off. England 2000 immediately assembled a core team to prepare for the public hearing. The team networked into hundreds of local, state and national resources that had been prepared by the community's previous work. It was given access to public and private monies because of the earlier process of education and consensus building.

The team assembled a presentation and massive supporting documentation, including a unique computer model analyzing the Pentagon's criteria used in making the decision. When the Alexandria team made its case on saving England, the Base Closing Commissioners were impressed but not sold. Alexandria was left on the list. England was to close, and Alexandria was to be significantly impacted.

The breadth and support of this community effort had been outstanding. How can that support be gauged? The community lost, but there was not one complaint about the efforts made to save the base. No one pointed fingers or looked for the sacrificial lamb.

The Transition Survival Plan

England 2000 immediately held a meeting and surfaced the "transition survival plan" that had been put together so quietly and carefully during the campaign to save the base. This plan laid out a course of action for the community to maximize the opportunities of base closure. The plan proposed the community be proactive in taking over the base. As studies of other base closures revealed, unless a community unites to confront the closure bureaucracy, events would control the community.

This period was the most sensitive of the whole process, for here were the ingredients over which political power struggles are regularly fought. At stake was a potential $750 million asset, the base and the political power attached to its reuse. In Alexandria's politically and ethnically diverse area, an underlying question was who or what would control that power. The trust and cooperation built over the previous year stood in good stead as politicians, business people and staff arrived at an equitable sharing of power between the political subdivisions. That power sharing action group became known as the England Transition Authority.

In the period of a week, the community was able to move from working on saving the base to focusing on reuse. Having shown a united front during the closure process, it was now able to vigorously attack the transition process. In 90 days, the England Transition Authority used the survival blueprint to accomplish what many describe as miracles.

* First, the authority convinced the State of Louisiana to create a political subdivision solely responsible for the redevelopment of the base. Because the community was united, the England Transition Authority wrote the draft legislation that would control base reuse. When it came to naming members of the board, the legislation tracked the membership makeup of the transition authority.

* Second, in a time of constrained budgets, the united community effort convinced the state to create a $500,000 operating fund for the authority.

* Third, the authority moved immediately to face the potential community disaster of how the federal government wanted to dispose of base property.

The established process for the disposal of military base property involved the base being declared surplus, then disposed of first to any federal agency, secondly to any state agency and thirdly sold to any local agency. Such a disposal policy can create a nightmare of jurisdictional disputes and misuse of land.

The City of Alexandria, which 40 years earlier had donated the land for the base, was now looking at having to buy it back. The city's proactive position and united community effort allowed elected officials in Washington to focus on bending the bureaucracy to allow for successful redevelopment and changed Pentagon base disposal policy to recognize that the future of the local community was at stake and should be the vital consideration in base reuse.

Mixed-use Base Revitalization

The England Economic and Industrial Development Authority, created by the state in September 1991, took up the challenge of the speedy and successful reuse of the base. In less than a year, the authority developed and delivered to the community a mixed-use base revitalization plan, published creative economic development materials and distributed them to thousands of prospects, forced innovative relationships with the military in charge of on-base real and personal property disposal, and undertook precedent-setting private lease negotiations.

In a precedent-setting example, the authority was named property caretaker of the base for the interim two-year property disposal period. It negotiated agreements that resulted in the J.B. Hunt Trucking company beginning operations on base property prior to base's official closure in December 1992. This action was named by Site Selection and Area Development magazine as one of the top 10 economic development deals in the nation for 1992.

The authority struck pay dirt when it secured the Joint Readiness Training Command staging base at England--an incredible deal that required the Pentagon to reverse its opinion as to the necessity of the England Airfield and agree with the community's arguments made during the base closure hearings. Thus, a year and a half after the closure decision, the Pentagon executed a contract with the authority to lease back part of the facility to accomplish a vital military mission.

The England Economic and Industrial Development created 500 jobs in its first year of existence. Currently, it has 13 additional leases under review in Washington and a goal of creating 1,100 jobs by December 1993.

And what of the community? Alexandria's efforts have avoided the projected economic panic and mass migration. As seen in Exhibit 2, responsible financial management has enabled the city to maintain stable utility revenues, increase its general fund balance by 186 percent since 1990, and secure voter approval of a property tax levy for road and street improvements. City economic development efforts continue with major retail chains constructing new outlets, significant development for the Port of Alexandria and creation of a $400,000 industry inducement fund.

Turning Adversity to Advantage

There are eight vital lessons in Alexandria's experience that are applicable to any community in America facing crisis:

1. There must be involvement of all sectors of the community.

2. There must be an agreement among all parties as to the specific goals to be accomplished.

3. There must be ongoing, two-way communication among the power parties to minimize misunderstandings.

4. Communication to educate and inform the public must be constant.

5. There should always be consideration given to the chance that one might not be successful. While one should not plan to fail, one must not fail to plan. Planning must help turn defeat into victory.

6. The community must persevere through the process. Completing the process leads to rewards one may not have known existed.

7. Don't accept rules/regulations as unchangeable.

8. Never underestimate the talent and resources available in a community.

Alexandria took the punch of base closing and did not lament the future. It could have fallen to factional infighting and lost a decade of economic growth. But in the fight to save the base, Alexandria discovered that the community had a common purpose and a shared dream for a better future. Now, the community is engaged in the process of turning adversity to great economic advantage.

JON W. GRAFTON has served for 14 years as city clerk of the City of Alexandria, Louisiana. He is a former president of the Louisiana Government Finance Officers Association. BRIAN W. FUNDERBURK, former finance director of the City of Alexandria, is now the finance director of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. He has served as a Government Finance Officers Association budget reviewer.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:England Air Force Base
Author:Grafton, Jon W.; Funderburk, Brian W.
Publication:Government Finance Review
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Words:3309
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