A day after Memorial Day , a bevy of Tennessee Air National Guard officials, led by Commander-in-Chief Phil Bredesen, broke ground in the searing sun on a $215 million base at the airport that from the start has been a study in collaboration.
"I say break ground advisedly," Bredesen said, laughing as he gestured at the moonscape behind him - a 118-acre swath at Swinnea Road and Shelby Drive bulldozed and cleared for construction - symbolizing a deal brokered more than five years among the National Guard, FedEx Corp. and the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority.
"This base allows us to keep the 164th Airlift Wing here in Memphis, which is a huge asset for our state," Bredesen said. "And it is a huge asset worldwide for the mission of the Air Force."
Leaders say the deal showcases the cooperation between government and private enterprise through an idea that started with Larry Cox, chairman and CEO of the airport authority.
In the final play, the Air National Guard is moving from its 103-acre location off Democrat Road. And FedEx, which paid $77 million - what it would have cost the Air National Guard to refurbish the base for the C5 - will absorb the Guard base, giving the company an unfettered two-mile stretch between Tchulahoma and Plough Boulevard.
The new base will give the Air National Guard 15 additional acres in the first U.S. base designed specifically for terrorism preparedness.
"If you think this stuff is easy, it's not," Charles Ickes, deputy director of the Air National Guard, told the crowd.
The two-star general flew from Washington to add his congratulations, along with U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn and a spokesman from U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.'s office.
"We had two of these projects. This one will come to fruition because of the cooperation between the Guard, the airport and FedEx. The other will not," Ickes said.
Friday, crews will start building the three 10-story hangars that are the focal point of the base. Each will be large enough to hold one Galaxy C5, the largest plane in the Air Force fleet.
St. Louis-based Alberici Enterprises won the $80 million hangar job, the biggest project in the history of Memphis International Airport.
"I've already found an apartment Downtown," said Terry Pursley, project manager.
"I'm a huge Cardinals fan, so I plan to be watching the Memphis Redbirds whenever I can."
Today, the 164th Airlift Wing has four C5s in Memphis, ferrying troops, equipment, "anything that needs to be moved," said Staff Sgt. Kathy Fruits, one of more than 150 new employees who have funneled into town from bases across the country to fill openings in Memphis.
"This plane can do anything," she said.
By next spring, there will be eight C-5s based in Memphis, doubling the base's full-time employment to more than 440 workers.
"We're still looking for 41 people," said Lt. Col. Lamar Spencer. "Most of the jobs are in the aircraft maintenance division. It's a bigger, more complex airplane that requires more people."
Average salary is $50,000. Many of the recruits - who must be National Guardsmen - have come from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware or Travis Air Force Base in California.
For Fruits, 44, and Brian Wailes, 45, both career military people who moved here from California, Memphis offered an immediate raise in pay and standard of living.
"When my wife and I looked at our options and crunched the numbers, Memphis meant an unbelievable amount of money," said Wailes, who bought a home in Olive Branch.
In 2003, aircraft maintenance workers at the base got a 25 percent raise to compete with wages at FedEx. The increase, plus the extra staff to accommodate the C5, pushed the base's annual payroll to more than $45 million.
The raise, coupled with relative low prices for land in Memphis, meant Fruits can afford a 3.5-acre home, also in Olive Branch.
"There is no way I could have afforded that in California," she said. "No way in heck."
Because the construction schedule is tight, hundreds of workers will be crisscrossing the site for the next two years, simultaneously building parking aprons, a fueling center and administrative offices in order to turn the project over to the Air National Guard by Sept. 1, 2008.
When the schedule hits its peak next summer, some 120 construction workers - predominantly local subcontractors - will be working on the hangars alone.
The list of companies on it include APAC Tennessee, Morgan and Thornburg Inc., Tri-State Contractors, Dyson Construction and Design Geopiers.
In late May, Oklahoma-based Flintco won a $38 million contract to build the four-piece administrative office.
Base specs also include two above-ground storage tanks - big enough to hold 6,500 barrels of fuel - and an industrial enclave that will house base firefighters, ground maintenance and ground support - essentially the physical structure to operate the base.
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