How One Community Survived Base Closure With PM-Base Closing-Edgemont
NICHOLAS K. GERANIOS
Dec. 26, 1988
MOSES LAKE, Wash. (AP) _ The lumbering Japan Air Lines 747 drones over bustling Grant County Mall on its landing approach, the most dramatic sign that this remote little town has survived and prospered since Larson Air Force Base closed in 1966.
Locals once feared the closure would dry up their ''Desert Oasis,'' but many now say they are glad the Air Force is gone.
With recommendations expected this week on which of 3,800 military bases the Pentagon should shut down to save $2 billion to $5 billion a year, anxious towns around the country could look to Moses Lake's economic recovery as a model.
Once a home for B-52 bombers, the old base is now a jet pilot training center, an aircraft testing site, a community college, a housing development, a municipal airport and an industrial park that, ironically, includes the Air Force as a tenant.
While Larson provided only 38 civilian jobs before closing, the diversified site now supports 825 workers.
''We're a heck of a lot better off now that the base is closed,'' said Robert Trask, an insurance agent in the area for 42 years. ''An air base isn't the greatest thing in the world.''
Most of Larson's 4,000 airmen lived on the base and spent their money at the base stores, rather than in town, he said.
''Taverns and used car lots miss them the most,'' Trask said.
But those sentiments were not in evidence when the shutdown shocked this town of 10,600, located in the Columbia River basin 150 miles east of Seattle.
Originally created as an Army Air Corps base in World War II, Larson was the biggest employer in what was little more than arid semi-desert before irrigation projects brought cultivation in the 1930s.
''The initial years after the closure of Larson Air Force Base were not an easy time,'' said Karen Wagner of the local Chamber of Commerce.
Larson was among 3,600 installations the Defense Department shut down from 1961 to 1977. But no bases have closed since because members of Congress, loathe to upset constituents by taking away jobs, have blocked the Pentagon from closing individual facilities.
In 1986, the Defense Department issued a report looking at 100 of the bases that closed before 1977.
''You never can really replace the military jobs,'' said Wally Bishop of the Defense Department's Office of Economic Adjustment in Washington, D.C.
But the report found that new civilian jobs outnumbered the lost civilian jobs 138,138 to 93,424 because of diversification at the 100 sites.
Replacing those civilian jobs is considered the sign of success, Bishop said. Still, many communities were not able to do that.
The Black Hills Army Depot in Edgemont, S.D., went from 512 civilian jobs to eight. Closing the Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia cost 2,800 jobs, shutting the Erie Army Depot in Ohio cost 885 jobs, and tiny Glasgow, Mont., lost 239 jobs when its Air Force base closed.
Residents of Moses Lake were determined to escape that fate.
The first thing leaders did was organize, said Clyde Owen, the Air Force colonel who closed the base then became the first director of the newly formed Port of Moses Lake.
The port, which has taxing authority, was created to buy or otherwise acquire base facilities from the government and to manage them, Owen said.
''You have to know what you want, and know who to deal with,'' Owen said.
Ideas like turning the hangers into a cattle feedlot were rejected, said port commissioner Leon Bodie.
''Its best use was as an airfield,'' Bodie said.
Their first major client, the Seattle-based Boeing Co., was already using Larson's runways for routine flight testing. About to unveil its new 747 model, Boeing urgently needed a long runway and uncluttered skies for testing and to train the pilots of its potential client airlines.
Boeing put up $120,000, which basically got the port through its first year. Since that time, 280 airlines have trained pilots at Moses Lake, according to port officials.
One of those, Japan Air Lines, established a permanent 747 training center at the port in 1968, with two dozen full-time employees and a rotating series of pilot trainees who give the little town a touch of the Far East.
They also give it more than a touch of noise pollution, as huge jets scream over town all day with trainees making touch-and-go landings at the airport for hours at a time.
''People in town on the whole don't worry a bit about the noise,'' Owen said. ''They know it's revenue-producing.''
Airlines pay the port $37.50 each time one of their planes takes off or lands on the 13,000-foot runway.
JAL is by far the biggest user, paying landing fees of $392,000 in fiscal 1988. The Air Force pays $84,000 a year to rent hangar space and train pilots on landing.
The port's 1988 income included $667,00 in landing fees, $94,000 in jet fuel sales, $673,000 in space rental and $274,000 in other income, for a total of $1.7 million.
Major commercial tenants on the 4,500-acre site include Sundstrand Data Control, Boeing, Union Carbide and Columbia Steel Fabricators.
There is a corrugated box manufacturer, an aircraft parts maker, a potato processor and a soft drink distributor. The old hospital is rented to a day- care center.
Manufacturers are attracted by the nation's lowest electricity rates, thanks to the local public utility's share in two Columbia River dams.
Also on the former base is Big Bend Community College, which has 140 employees and 1,200 students.
The school uses former base buildings, including the theater, cafeteria and dormitories. The old bowling alley is now a science and math building. The airmen's club is a student center.
The school also set up a commercial pilot training program shortly after Larson closed to take advantage of the runway and hangars; 10 percent of the student body is now enrolled in that program, said spokesman Doug Sly.
For all the good news, the area will never be able to replace the 4,000 lost military jobs, Owen said. The base's $14 million budget in the early 1960s would likely top $100 million in today's money, he said.
By contrast, the current annual payroll is probably $3 million to $4 million.
But if the base were still around, Moses Lake would have little incentive to pursue economic diversificiation, Ms. Wagner said.
Trask, the insurance agent, says good riddance.
''The town generates more money now,'' he said.