Rural city goes on offensive to keep base

Georgia community spares no opportunity to solidify support for its key employer, as Pentagon cuts loom.

When the military decided to build an airfield here in this central Georgia dairy community during World War II, local leaders were nothing but accommodating: They changed the city's name to match the base's namesake.

In the years since, Robins Air Force Base has grown into the largest industrial complex in the state, and the city grew right alongside it.

Now, with a new round of base closures drawing near, city leaders have no intention of letting this base end up on the list that the Pentagon will mark for closure.

They've hired out-of-town consultants, thought up ways to make the community more appealing to the military, and made sure the local congressional delegation pushed for improvements on the base - ranging from new aircraft housed inside its hangars to a renovated golf course.

Warner Robins is far from being the only military town getting a head start on protecting its base from a process that may slate as many as 1 in 4 military facilities to be eliminated or shrunk.

It's still early in the game. The president doesn't even nominate members of the base closing commission until March, 2005 and the final recommendations aren't due to Congress before that fall.

But instead of waiting until they've landed on a closure list, communities around the US are engaging in a beauty pageant designed to make them look attractive to the Pentagon from the outset.

Military towns are lining up congressional support and planning to fight the base closures any way they can - ensuring Defense Secretary Rumsfeld won't have an easy time as he tries to reduce the Pentagon's excess infrastructure.

Perhaps nowhere are local leaders digging in more deeply than Georgia, a state that has long received more than its share of military largess, thanks to a string of powerful lawmakers who haves chaired armed-services committees: Carl Vinson, Richard Russell, and Sam Nunn.

Some have joked that those native Georgians poured so much concrete into the state's 13 bases - housing two Army divisions and half of America's nuclear-armed submarines - that the state might tip into the sea. No Georgia politician wants to be the one to let the bases, their 120,000 employees, or their $25 billion in annual economic contributions slip away.

Here at Robins, Air Force civilian contractors refurbish fighter and transport planes, stripping them to their metallic skeletons inside huge hangars. The base is also home to jumbo aerial refuelers and a dozen JSTARS, high-tech radar aircraft that tracked ground traffic over Iraq.

All that activity employs 20,000 plus people on base, equivalent to half the city's population. It pumps an estimated $4 billion into the economy of mid-Georgia - a mainly rural region where there are few big employers besides a snack-food factory and a chicken processing plant.

Without the base, which sits on one side of the highway with the city on the other, this community would probably be a shell of its current self, locals say.

The surrounding area is largely rural. In town, much of the off-base business is military related, from aerospace contractors to fast-food chains catering to military personnel.

"If we lose it, the economy would be dead," says retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Ron Smith, the former base commander who has returned as a consultant to help save it. "It would be worse than when Sherman came through Georgia."

That may be an overstatement, but few here want to find out. Twice during the 1990s base closure rounds, Robins wound up on the initial hit list but was eventually spared. The community has plenty to be anxious about this time around: The Pentagon has made clear it thinks aircraft overhaul and refurbishing work done at three depots could be consolidated

That puts Warner Robins in direct competition with Oklahoma City and Ogden, Utah. This time, it doesn't have a Georgian, Newt Gingrich, as Speaker of the House as it did during the last round in 1995.

What Warner Robins does have is The 21st Century Partnership, a nonprofit organization with a million-dollar budget whose sole purpose is to save the base.

Helping at the state level is the Georgia Military Affairs Coordinating Committee, operating from offices at the state chamber of commerce in Atlanta. It pushes for improvements such as road renovations, and lobbies Congress for military spending.

A base closure is not necessarily a death knell for towns on the receiving end. A number of communities have successfully adapted. But that isn't Plan A here.

Since underutilized facilities are prime targets for closure, local leaders prodded the service into basing the new JSTARS aircraft here after the Air Force took away Robins's B-1 bombers. Now, with Robins's aerial refueling tankers scheduled to leave around 2009, community leaders are scrambling for a replacement unit.

Also important: amenities that improve quality of life. That helps explain the new gym and the golf course now being renovated at a cost of several million dollars.

Plenty of work is being done off-base as well. The city swapped land with the Air Force to make it easier for the military to build affordable housing nearby and encouraged local doctors to subscribe to the military retirees' health system. "You can't wait and not pay attention and not fix problems," says General Smith. "If you work to support your base, then you're going to get through the base closures."

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