By Marlena Hartz : CNJ Staff Writer
The Air Force Special Operations 16th Wing emerged as a good fit for Cannon Air Force Base quickly after Cannon was placed in enclave status last August, its three F-16 squadrons assigned elsewhere.
The base would have closed if a mission had not been found by 2010, under the decree of a federal commission. But calmed by the prospect of the 16th Wing relocating to Cannon, local and state officials never envisioned that happening, Sen. Pete Domenici, R.-N.M., said on Tuesday.
“Almost all the behind-the-scenes talk started with people in the know about special ops activities in the Air Force,” Domenici said Tuesday in a telephone interview with the Clovis News Journal.
That Cannon was ideal for Air Force special operations training was “patent early on,” the senator said.
“It was just a question,” he said, “of ‘how do you get this finished without it getting out of the box?’”
Avoiding the pitfalls of public discussion was essential, Domenici said.
Military officials feared protests — from political leaders as well as individuals who didn’t want changes — could erupt over the move, which involves the transfer of more than 90 aircraft from Hurlburt Field in the Florida Panhandle to Cannon.
“We felt like we had to be careful of what we said and did,” said Terry Moberly, the president of the Committee of 50, which lobbies for the base.
Moberly said he was confident the 16th Wing would transfer to Cannon about three months ago, but “did not want to reveal anything that would jeopardize our position.”
In the months that passed since Cannon was declared an enclave, Air Force officials assigned to find Cannon a mission and local officials busied themselves with details, officials said.
“Most of the things that happened were ministerial things, that the law required would happen,” said Domenici, referring to an eight-step process designed by the military to find a suitable mission for Cannon.
Bi-weekly telephone conference calls kept community leaders abreast of developments in the search for a mission, said Shirley Curry, secretary of Air Force Public Affairs.
A few members of the Committee of 50 were included in the calls. Harris said they collected information about eastern New Mexico, at the request of military officials, and passed it along.
Those questions often centered on infrastructure, said Harris, who relayed details about area schools, housing and health care to officials in Washington.
“There has not been a day that has gone by that there hasn’t been phone calls, letters or trips to D.C.,” Harris said.
“So many people worked so hard.”
By no means, however, did the effort to save the base begin when Cannon was recommended for closure by the Department of Defense last summer, Harris said.
The Committee of 50, of which Harris is also a part, was formed about 50 years ago, and local government officials started planning for the possibility of Cannon’s closure months before the recommendation was made, garnering funds and hiring experts.
Officials have estimated 30 percent of the area’s economy is directly tied to Cannon.
“This (new mission) is a great reward for a community that has committed itself to Cannon. I am just as relieved,” said a suit-clad Harris, “as everyone else to have a decision. For all those people who didn’t know, now they know. Now, they can begin to make good decisions for their lives based on this.”