Williams Air Force lab targeted for closure - East Valley Tribune: Business

Williams Air Force lab targeted for closure

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Posted: Saturday, May 14, 2005 8:49 am | Updated: 8:55 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

On a day when most of Arizona came through unscathed, Williams Gateway Airport took a direct hit from the Pentagon.

Pentagon plans to close 33 major bases

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The Air Force Research Lab at the east Mesa airport was one of only two military facilities in Arizona recommended for closure Friday by the U.S. Department of Defense as part of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure process.

The lab, which employs 88 military and civilian workers, trains U.S. Air Force pilots using state-of-the-art simulators.

Williams Gateway Director Lynn Kusy said the proposed closure would have an economic impact beyond the closing of the lab itself because several tenants at the airport do work for or with the lab.

"Also it generates a significant amount of air traffic for us," he said.

Williams Gateway officials will try to work with the governor’s office and the state’s congressional delegation to get the decision reversed, airport spokesman Brian Sexton said.

"Next week we will start working the phones," he said, adding that airport officials were surprised the lab appeared on the closing list. "We were focusing on what would happen at Luke (Air Force Base in Glendale), and this came in under the radar."

The 35-year-old lab survived two earlier base-closing rounds since 1993, when Williams Air Force Base was closed and efforts began to redevelop it into a civilian airport and education center.

The list released Friday is just a recommendation from the Defense Department to a nine-member base closing commission. The commission can vote to remove or add facilities to the list before passing a final recommendation to President Bush by Sept. 8. The president will have until Sept. 23 to accept or reject the list in its entirety. If accepted, Congress has 45 legislative days to reject the list or it becomes final.

The only other Arizona facility proposed for closure is the Allen Hall Armed Forces Reserve Center in Tucson, with 80 military personnel.

However, the proposal announced Friday by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also recommends reducing the number of personnel at several other Arizona bases, although they would remain open.

Luke would lose 278 civilian and military personnel and Fort Huachuca would suffer a net loss of 168 personnel.

State officials, who had feared that Luke — with about 7,000 jobs — would be closed, were generally relieved. "It’s a good day, all things considered,’’ said retired Army Col. Thomas Finnegan, co-chairman of Gov. Janet Napolitano’s Military Affairs Commission.

Napolitano expressed hope that future base realignments with the return of U.S. troops from Europe could result in a net increase for Arizona installations.

‘‘So in the long haul, I don’t know that Arizona might not end up with a net positive,’’ Napolitano said.

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said he was "pleased at this official acknowledgment that Arizona’s military facilities are daily making vital contributions to the war on terror and the defense of our nation."

Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., whose district includes Williams Gateway, said he would wait to see the defense department’s reasons for closing the Air Force lab before passing judgment.

"The foremost goal is to enhance national security. We want to make sure what happens does that. If this (closing the lab) can be defended on those merits, I am glad to (support the proposed closing)."

He added that national security has to be the top priority, not jobs or economic development.

The Defense Department wants to close the Mesa facility to consolidate its research labs at fewer locations around the country, said Sue Murphy, a spokeswoman at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, where the Air Force lab organization is based. She said the work being done in Mesa would move to Wright-Patterson if the proposal goes ahead as planned.

Another Air Force lab in Texas also will be moved to Wright-Patterson, she said.

"Relocating this division to Wright-Patterson AFB . . . will consolidate geographically separated units and provide greater synergy across technical capabilities and functions," Hendrick W. Ruck, director of the Effectiveness Directorate, which oversees the Mesa center, said in a statement.

The Pentagon estimated the economic impact of the closure at a reduction of 465 direct and indirect jobs through 2011, which amounts to less than 0.1 percent of the Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale area’s employment.

Mesa Mayor Keno Hawker said he was disappointed in the decision, adding that he didn’t think geography would be an important consideration.

"I didn’t think location would be the determining factor because I thought they could network through fiber optics," he said. "I don’t believe in this case consolidation benefits them. I think it would be better for them to be disbursed so the pilots wouldn’t have to go so far for training in one location. This defies logic in my opinion."

The move also would be a major setback for plans to develop Williams Gateway Airport, Sexton said. One of the goals of the airport staff is to develop the former air force base as a center for simulation technology, and moving the Air Force lab strikes at the heart of that vision, he said.

"We want to lead the country in high-tech flight simulators," he said. "It’s not just the number of jobs that are lost. It’s the vision that is lost."

Marv Wellik, vice president of marketing for International Simulation and Training Systems, a tenant at Williams Gateway who works closely with the Air Force lab, also said he was disappointed.

"It’s going to impact us, but I don’t know how much right now," he said. "I don’t know what we would do if they close it."

On the plus side, Arizona officials were happy that Luke was spared.

"I am extremely pleased considering a lot of people a few years ago thought Luke was a lost cause," said Peoria Mayor John Keegan, who helped organize a lobbying effort paid for by West Valley cities to fight for Luke’s cause.

Rep. John Nelson of Glendale, R-District 12, said state officials worked hard to protect their military bases, but the job of keeping Luke open isn’t over yet.

"With the offer of realignment, everyone’s going to be out to shoot holes in our arguments," he said.

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