By LISA HOFFMAN
Scripps Howard News Service
June 30, 2005
In Fairbanks, Alaska, 3,000 residents - many wearing "America Needs Eielson" Air Force Base T-shirts - showed up two hours early for seats at a hearing to show commissioners their devotion to the base.
Photo courtesy Office of the Governor
As members of the Base Realignment and Closing Commission crisscross the country to visit all 33 major bases slated for shuttering by the Pentagon and the 29 picked for substantial realignment, they are being met by orchestrated and spontaneous efforts designed to show the vital importance of the military facility to the communities that could lose them.
While city and state officials pepper the commissioners with facts and figures to rebut the Pentagon's contention that their facility is expendable, rank-and-file folks rally to demonstrate how vital the base is for jobs and regional economies.
When commissioners visit Texas bases next week - including Lackland Air Force Base, Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, and Naval Station Ingleside - such public support is certain to be shown as well. The same is expected when panel members travel to Naval Base Ventura City and Naval Support Activity Corona in California on July 13.
But will such outpourings of public passion make any difference in the assessments by the nine-person panel, which has until Sept. 8 to endorse or reject the Pentagon's picks? In past base closing rounds, commissions have changed no more than 15 percent of the Defense Department's selections.
Lloyd Newton, a former Army general on the commission, implied to a newspaper in Tonawanda, N.Y., that the community pep rallies do have an effect.
"This commission is not just about sterile cost accounting," Newton said after a visit this week to New York's Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, which is slated for closing. "We are very, very much attuned to what people bring to the process here."
Commission spokesman Robert McCreary said public displays of flag-waving, sign-carrying support for the installations is impressive, and conveys the importance of the difficult task facing panel members. But in the end, the commission will make its decisions based on facts and figures, particularly those that have to do with the facility's military value, he said.
"They understand the stakes involved for families and businesses," McCreary said Thursday. But the commissioners "have to do what's right for the country."
Under the criteria Congress directed the Pentagon to use to guide its choices for closings, the economic effect on communities ranks sixth on the list of the eight categories. No. 1 is the "current and future mission capabilities, and the impact on operational readiness" of a facility.
Even so, base backers across the country are encouraging the displays of public interest, which, if nothing else, give citizens an opportunity to contribute to the base-saving efforts. Some communicate the point in creative ways.
In Fairbanks, for instance, where some 2,800 airmen and their 3,300 dependents would be lost if Eilsen closes, commissioners had to pass under a red, white and blue balloon arch to get in the building hosting the public hearing. A lone man there played "Johnny Come Marching Home" on a tin whistle.
In South Dakota, which stands to lose Ellsworth Air Force Base, about 150 motorcyclists hit the road en masse to demonstrate their backing for the base. City and county employees got the day off, and an estimated 8,500 assembled at the June 21 hearing in Rapid City.
And in Texarkana, Texas, which is fighting to save the 5,000 jobs at the Red River Army Depot, thousands lined the road from the airport. Mindful of the fact that the depot survived the last base-closing round in 1995 despite being on the Pentagon's list, many wore yellow T-shirts that read: "It still ain't over."
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