HOUSTON & MESA, AZ — Williams Gateway Airport east of Phoenix is certainly on the list of most successful base conversions to date; Ellington Field, some 20 miles from downtown Houston, is more in a holding pattern. Neither is the overwhelming challenge some communities have faced when handed over a base that at one time was a source of assured economic impact. In September, the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) submitted its latest recommendations to President Bush. Here’s a summary of the BRAC report, and updates on the Williams and Ellington experiences.
The Administration has subsequently approved the report and sent it to Congress. The report becomes law unless Congress enacts a joint resolution of disapproval within 45 days of receiving it from the White House.
The 2005 BRAC report:
Washington-based NAID/Asso-ciation of Defense Communities, made up of managers/owners of former bases, looks at it another way. Says the group, “In all, ten defense communities would gain at least 2,500 military, DOD civilian, and mission support contractor personnel if the BRAC Commission’s final recommendations become law.” At Columbus, GA, says the group, the city expects that the influx of similar personnel to approach 10,000 who “are expected to make Fort Benning their new home.”
When it comes to a working knowledge of what it’s like to convert a military base into a dynamic part of the community — from airport operations and development-community points of view — few know more than Williams Gateway Airport’s Lynn F. Kusy, C.M., C.A.E. Most notably, he spearheaded the effort at Rickenbacker in Columbus, OH that turned it into a major cargo complex.
Williams AFB was earmarked for closure in 1993. A year earlier, an Intergovernmental Agreement Group was created via state legislation to transform the base into a business center. Kusy arrived soon after.
One of Kusy’s first growth targets was education entities, and that initiative has led to a major presence by Arizona State University East and Maricopa Community College District. According to Kusy, some 5,000 students are today enrolled at Williams-based campuses, with growth rates of 30 percent annually.
Says Kusy, “What they’ve done is move whole schools here: the school of agribusiness; the school of golf; the school of nursing; the school of aerospace management; the school of information technology. If you want to be a student in those schools, you can’t be at the Tempe campus, you have to be here.”
Williams Gateway is nearing completion of a privately financed, 25,000-sq.ft. cargo complex that will offer individual tenant opportunities. For cargo, Williams built an $11 million taxiway and seven-acre cargo ramp. The military still has a strong presence, with C-17 maintenance and the leftover Air Force Research Laboratory, among other activity.
It boasts the busiest contract tower in the U.S. and three parallel runways, from 9,300 to 10,400 feet. Williams recently hired air service and cargo marketing persons to promote future growth.
Regarding air service, Kusy says, “Are we competing with Sky Harbor? No. Sky Harbor is actually funding 50 percent of our marketing program.”
The PHX marketing subsidiary is $100,000, according to a Phoenix Sky Harbor spokeswoman, “As far as a Southwest or America West moving their entire operation out there, that’s not something that we see as a possibility. They had hopes for JetBlue, but that didn’t happen. But somebody like that would probably be a good first step,” she says.
Some 20 miles southeast of downtown Houston lies Ellington Field, which the city took over from the DOD in 1984. Its operation today looks much as it did then — home to the NASA fleet; a major military presence — with the exception of a recent growth in general aviation activity, a key target area. Ellington is one of three airports in the Houston Airport System, with Bush Intercontinental and Hobby Airport. Intercontinental is the international and hub airport; Hobby is the low-fare airport, with Southwest a long-time dominant carrier; and Ellington’s eventual role is still being defined. According to Richard Vacar, A.A.E., who heads up the Houston system, the other two airports subsidize Ellington’s ops budget to the tune of $1 million annually.
Explains Vacar, “We’ve been developing a philosophy for the airports where they are all complementary as opposed to being in competition with each other.
“The good news is, the general aviation activity is increasing. We’ve built more hangars and our second FBO has started construction.” Vacar attributes the GA growth to a migration of business aviation away from Hobby due to increasing airline operations there, and he expects that migration to continue.
Commercial air service at Ellington has had starts and stops; most recently, Continential Express offered free shuttle service to Intercontinental to compete with Southwest, but discontinued the service this year due to costs.
The military and NASA remain strong at Ellington, says Vacar. “We’ve got the hot aircraft to do interdictions over the Gulf. I think everybody agrees that function needs to be here because of the proximity. The real debate is, should they replace the 147th’s F-16s with some other aircraft, and that’s still open.
“I think it’s pretty clear this is NASA’s home. They’re not going away.”
Boeing has a major NASA support presence at Ellington, and officials continue to compete for major aeronautical and non-aviation development. According to Vacar, the city was in the running for the military’s tilt-rotor initiative, which would have taken up several hundred acres. In all, he estimates Ellington has some 1,000 acres for development.
“The problem is we have a lot of competition from other acreage in the area,” explains Vacar,” parcels that are closer to Beltway 8 and Interstate 45. The consultants guess that we could, on average, expect to lease about six acres a year. We have had several near-misses.”