Year in review: Area recovering from BRAC process

Gabriel Bryant of Clovis shows his support for Cannon when members of the Brac Commission visited Clovis in June. (Staff photo)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Remnants of the Base Realignment and Closure process linger around eastern New Mexico. Posted outside several businesses are thick, plastic banners. They were designed months ago in a campaign to overturn a Department of Defense proposal to shut Cannon Air Force Base.

The banner hanging outside Napa Auto Parts on shop-laden Prince Street in Clovis is in pristine condition.
Napa Auto Parts Manager Phil Johnston said he will probably change his marquee, which also bears a pro-Cannon message, but he doesn’t plan to take the banner down yet, even though four months have passed since a federal commission spared Cannon from closure and requested the Department of Defense find a new mission for base.

But that commission also voted to disband Cannon’s three F-16 squadrons, promising the jets to various installations across the country, as well as close Cannon if it hasn’t been granted a mission by 2010.

“I am going to keep (the banner) up until we get a final answer,” said Johnston, himself a retired Air Force member.

“Things can change,” said Johnston who still worries Cannon may shutter despite recent Air Force mention of a yet-to-be revealed potential mission.

He believes the bright banners outside the Napa Auto Parts stores, one in Clovis and another in Portales, will remind local leaders, as well as government officials who may visit the area again, of the local support for the base, which accounts for an estimated 30 percent of the region’s economy.

There is no uniform reaction to the roller coaster ride launched by the 2005 BRAC round. But for some in this largely agricultural region, the sting of recent government decisions has not worn off. The region escaped the harsher sentence of a Cannon closure, but the base’s fate is still uncertain, and that, some say, has paralyzed business.

“When they announced the base (could) close, it affected us overnight,” said Tommy Heflin, owner of Portales Concrete, Inc.

Heflin has supplied the region with concrete for more than 20 years, yet he has never seen business drop as suddenly and as drastically as it did then. Building plans were simply abandoned — one contract to build 12 homes in Clovis was terminated, and Heflin lost out on the potential sale of more than 700 yards of concrete.

He said business has not increased since Cannon was spared from the BRAC list in August, and he doesn’t expect it will. “People are still scared. They could pull the plug on Cannon again,” Heflin said. Leery residents, Heflin said, want to know for certain that Cannon has a mission, and that the base will not decrease in size, before they enter into any costly construction ventures.

For others, business lulled only temporarily after the BRAC announcement.

“I think people have finally decided that they don’t want to put their lives on hold,” said Skip Overdier, an associate broker with Coldwell Banker Colonial Real Estate.

According to Overdier, home buying froze to a trickle in May when Cannon was initially threatened, even while interest rates remained low. But about a month ago, business for the real estate agency returned to normal, he said.

For Clovis resident Mike Bailey, the events of this year were a “wake-up call.” His early childhood memories are closely tied to the base. His father and mother worked as civilians on its sprawling campus, and the family would often host dinner parties for the young, single men stationed at the base.

“They were a little wet behind the ears. And Clovis was a pretty desolate spot in the ’50s,” said Bailey, co-owner a local car dealership. With the base so closely tied to Bailey’s own identity and that of Clovis, he said he took its presence for granted until the BRAC announcement.

“It got a lot of people back on board,” Bailey said.

Base advocate Randy Harris, too, believes Cannon’s brush with extinction reminded Clovis and Portales residents of its value. It also highlighted a desperate need for a more diversified economy, Harris said.

“We realized that we have to continue to work hard to keep Cannon Air Force Base, but also increase our efforts to bring other industry into the community. … That’s easy to talk about, but hard to get done,” Harris said.

Infrastructure needs and economic expansion are now top priorities for the city of Clovis, said Clovis Mayor David Lansford.

Yet another lesson gleaned from the BRAC round may serve to suture those region vulnerabilities.

Clovis, Portales, and state leaders banded together to protest the Pentagon call for closure; so did community members, Portales and Clovis leaders said. And Cannon was spared.

“If you believe in something strong enough and work for it hard enough,” said Roosevelt County Commissioner Gene Creighton, “you can usually get that something to happen.”