Meridian, Columbus resume efforts to keep bases open

Meridian put its military installation team together in 1991 and helped Naval Air Station Meridian avoid getting shut down after landing on closing lists in 1991, 1993 and 1995.

Larmar McDonald, a Meridian insurance businessman and current chair of the Meridian Military Team, says he thinks the local air station is the only Navy installation to “be successful three times against BRAC,” officially known as the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, a citizen panel that selects bases for closing and submits a list to congress for an up-or-down vote.

In the 2005 BRAC round, the air station stayed off the list completely, though the base closing commission ultimately closed an Air National Guard wing based in Meridian.

President Obama’s budget calls for a new BRAC round in 2015.

Should Air Station Meridian land on the list, McDonald will draw from successful past defenses. “The main thing is you learn how to tell the story of why this base is so important and essential to national security,” he said.

In this instance, the main facts to convey are the community’s support for the installation both through infrastructure help and quality of life enhancements, ample elbow room the base has being 10 miles from town and the quality facilities that have built on the base over the years.

Air Station Meridian is an intermediate training stop for pilots who go on to fleet duty after completing training there.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a former Mississippi governor, has soothed some nerves in Meridian with congressional testimony that the Navy has little room for further infrastructure reductions.

Not so for the Air Force — much to the chagrin of residents in Mississippi’s Golden Triangle trying to keep Columbus Air Force Base open.

Mabus’ Air Force counterpart, Secretary Michael Donley, put an official estimate of excess Air Force base capacity at around 20 percent and says a new round could make up for the relatively small reduction in Air Force infrastructure achieved in 2005.

In the Golden Triangle, talk of Air Force cutbacks is as welcome as boll weevils in the Delta. And for good reason — Columbus AF Base, a training ground for new pilots, carries an economic impact equivalent to a top three or four manufacturer in the Triangle.

“The products they are delivering are pilots,” said Joe Max Higgins, executive director of the Golden Triangle Link, an economic development agency representing Columbus, West Point and Starkville.

Columbus AFB had 1,494 military personnel assigned to it in 2009 and 1,777 civilian employees, producing an annual economic impact estimated at $287M.

No wonder Columbus and the other of the Triangle communities are busty identifying ways to keep the base, one of two Air Force centers for entry level pilot training, competitive.

After the last BRAC round, Columbus voters agreed to fund construction of a new middle school near the base. Further, Lowndes County School District has put in a place a school provision that allows children of base personnel to attend the highly rated Caledonia elementary, middle and high schools.

Higgins said he went back to review concerns raised in the 2005 BRAC. “They always brought up education, education, education as an issue,” he said.

The task in 2005 could be much the same in 2015: Show whatever shortcomings Mississippi’s public schools have, the schools in Lowndes County do not share them, Higgins said.

“Now when we sit down and talk to our base officials, education does not come up. It was seen as a weakness the last time.”

Link, the Golden Triangle Airport Authority and East Mississippi Community College are working to reopen an aircraft mechanics and aerospace training school at the Golden Triangle Airport outside Columbus. Aircraft mechanics and aerospace specialists make up the biggest portion of the civilian workforce at the air base, according to Higgins.

A state of the art school is planned in a former Air Force hangar that will train students for FAA certification in airframe and power plant work.

“This will provide the air base with a stream of mechanics who can do the work,” Higgins said.

Meanwhile, Golden Triangle Airport has opened one of its runways for takeoffs by pilot trainees while the air base repairs one of its runways. When the FAA was thinking about cutting off funding for air traffic control at the civilian airport, the Airport Authority agreed to fund the tower for at least three months after the funding dried up. In the end, however, the FAA exempted towers at Golden Triangle Airport and Meridian’s Key Field from funding elimination, based on their importance to military operations.

Alegra Bingham is the Triangle’s representative on the state Military Defense Communities Council. She served on the council formed to stave off closure of Columbus AF Base in 2005. “When one BRAC ended we started planning for the next one,” she said.

“The Columbus community is constantly in tune with the needs of Columbus Air Force Base,” she said. “We’re constantly assessing and talking with the leaders at the air base on the things that will make the bonds stronger and will make life better for the trainers and the instructors.”

In past years, the region has worked to help upgrade housing on the base and established land-use policies that prevent encroachment on air base operations, according to Bingham.

She said she thinks the new round of closures will be different from previous ones. “My gut feeling is that so many decisions will be based on economics – not the emotional factors of the community. Shear facts will drive the decision,” she said.

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