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England reuse after closure 'set the standard' for the nation to follow

As the 1990s began, Alexandria and the surrounding area was staring down a devastating economic event. 

England Air Force Base, a fixture in Central Louisiana for decades, was on the chopping block as the federal government looked to save defense dollars by closing unnecessary military installations. 

The base employed more than 3,000 military personnel and more than 700 civilian workers, as well as a thriving industry supporting it with goods and services that sent ripple effects throughout the economy.

Closing England would set Central Louisiana back years, study after study found. Well-known Louisiana economist Loren Scott predicted the Alexandria area would see a decade of economic growth wiped out.

The last A-10 II Thunderbolt leaves England Air Force Base. (Photo: Town Talk photo)

 

"We were scared to death," said Joe McPherson, then a state senator. "The reports said we were going to lose 20-25 percent of our economy when the base closed."

The nightmare scenario came true in 1991, when it was made public that England would be shut down. By mid-1992, nearly all the aircraft and personnel were gone. The base was officially closed in a December ceremony.

What happened after was unthinkable. Not only did Alexandria not "dry up and blow away," as former Town Talk staff Jim Leggett said of the common perception at the time, it avoided taking a giant economic hit in the years that followed.

That success is attributed to a small group of community leaders who worked to secure conversion of the shuttered base into a civilian asset that still exists as the England Economic and Industrial Development District.

The way they salvaged something positive out of what was thought to be a doomsday event is, in the words of current England Authority Executive Director Jon Grafton, "one of the greatest political stories ever told."

"I was telling folks, 'You are about to lose a decade's worth of growth,'" Scott said. "Aside from oil prices, that's probably the worst forecast I ever put out. For the longest time, I was the butt of all the jokes up there, and justifiably so."

England Air Force BaseAn aerial photo of England Air Force Base in the early 1960s. (Photo: Town Talk photo)

 

'It's going to happen'

England survived the 1988 Base Realignment and Closure Commission process, but with more BRAC rounds expected in the near future, it seemed like only a temporary reprieve.

"I remember sitting in this office, sweating it out," late Alexandria Mayor Ned Randolph told the Town Talk in 2001. "We weren't on the list that year, but it got our attention."   

 There was a sense locally, Randolph said, that "it's going to happen some day."It didn't take long. Groundwork began almost immediately for what would be the 1991 BRAC. This time, England — one of three bases that was home to the A-10 Thunderbolt II, nicknamed the "Warthog" — was threatened.

"We were all very concerned about what the impact of the closure of the base was going to be," Grafton said. "It wasn't just Loren Scott saying we were going to take an economic hit. Every economic study that was done, including one by the Department of Defense, said the community was going to be crippled by the loss of the base."

"It had been part of the fabric of the community for so long," said Deborah Randolph, president of the Central Louisiana Chamber of Commerce and Ned Randolph's widow. "It felt like a gut punch to think about losing it."

Local leaders mobilized to prevent that. A two-pronged strategy was chosen. 

The effort to make the case that England should stay open was termed "Team A." A parallel effort to plan for the best re-use of the base in the event of closure was called "Team B."

Team A "fought the good fight," Grafton said, though it was ultimately unsuccessful. When military officials came to Alexandria for a public meeting on the BRAC process, thousands of people showed up at City Hall to support keeping England Air Force Base open.

"When they had the hearing here about the base closure, I wrote a column where I said I don't want to hear anyone complain about this if they don't show up," Leggett said. "When the hearing came, it was a traffic jam like you've never seen. The fire marshal said you can only have so many in here. He locked the doors."

Elected officials and other stakeholders lobbied incessantly, but they worried that England — a single-mission base whose aircraft were planned to be phased out — was in deep trouble.

They were right. Despite the pressure exerted on defense officials, the sophisticated modelings that showed the benefits of keeping England open and the unflagging community support, it remained on the list of bases recommended for closure.

A color guard carries the American flag past a group of dignitaries during the ceremonies to close England Air Force Base in 1992. (Photo: Town Talk photo)

 

No room to fail

Although Team A waged a public campaign, Team B's efforts were largely kept quiet.

The top priority, everyone involved agreed, was keeping the base open. Anything that suggested the community was preparing for closure, stakeholders feared, could be perceived as less than full support for the base.

"There were those, national media included, who said Alexandria did an excellent job at putting together data and information to make the case for keeping England Air Force Base open," Deborah Randolph said. "Once it became known that England would be closed, Team B really stepped up their efforts. They really dove into communities that had experienced base closures, what worked and what didn't work.

"There was no room to fail. There was a sense of having to get it right." 

Several things were unique about the deal that was struck to convert the decommissioned base into a civilian-controlled economic development district.

The Team A/Team B approach would be replicated many times by other communities facing base closures. The contract for maintenance of the base after it was shuttered, normally given to a private sector firm, was awarded to the new district, giving it an additional source of funding. And not only all of the land on the base, but also the physical property, down to chairs and desks, stayed and became part of the district.

"These are things that had never been before," Grafton said. "All of those things are now enshrined in national policy, and any community in the United States can avail itself to the victories that our community won in those days of putting the reuse together. Because of the forward thinking and leadership in our community, we set several national standards."

"England became the model for other base closures," Scott said. "I got calls from all over asking, 'What can you tell us about what happened in Alexandria?' So I told them the story of your great recovery."

Not only did the huge hit he predicted not occur, Scott said, but the area economy saw some upticks in the years that followed.

The success story did not go unnoticed, as media outlets wrote gushing profiles about the small community that beat the odds.

"I think it gave all of those who worked so hard on this a boost," Deborah Randolph said. "I think many of them were surprised at how widespread the attention was. It's not a typical thing in Alexandria to get a call from the Wall Street Journal, then a few days later from the New York Times, then a few days later from the Washington Post and from media outlets overseas."

The late Ned Randolph, who was mayor of Alexandria at the time, is credited as one of the driving forces in the conversion of England Air Force Base to a civilian asset. (Photo: Town Talk photo)

 

United front

The list of people who contributed to the effort is long, but the two names everyone brings up are Randolph and Jim Meyer, a local engineer who was chair of the Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.

They were, Scott said, "the driving forces behind taking what could have been a really bad disaster and turning it into something positive. When you think about it, that could have been a vast wasteland out there."

"Ned was a humble person," Deborah Randolph said. "He spoke in terms of 'we accomplished what we set out to do,' which was to create civilian jobs to replace the military ones that were lost and improve the quality of life for people in the area. I believe it was his definitive legacy, his steering of the community through the closure of England Air Force Base."

"If you wanted to name a chief architect, (Meyer) was the community force that brought everybody together," McPherson said. "Everybody liked him. There was nothing not to like."

Today, England Airpark is a community that includes housing, private companies, a golf course, hotel and one of the finest airports you'll find in a rural area.

The things that are happening there "we could not have dreamed of 20 years ago," Grafton said.

"The striking thing to me was how unified both elected and business leaders were, and the community as a whole, including people who were not friends or who were political enemies," Deborah Randolph said. "It did not seem to matter. Everybody worked together on this issue."

"It's just a great story of community leaders working together to make something happen," Grafton said. "There was such a spirit of teamwork and community leadership. Especially in today's political climate, there's just so much divisiveness. It's only by working together to reach some common goals that we can move our communities forward. This community and England Airpark are recognized around the nation as an example of how a community can pull together and make lemonade out of a lemon."

 

This article was originally published on The TownTalk. Read the original article here.

The information above is for general awareness only and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Office of Economic Adjustment or the Department of Defense as a whole.

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