Beale grounded? – Closing of military base could cripple area economy | TheUnion.com

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Beale grounded? – Closing of military base could cripple area economy

This is the first in a two-part series on Beale Air Force Base. Tomorrow, part two will examine its current war effort.

The specter of closing Beale Air Force Base is very real to those near it, and they are striving to save the $500 million economic engine that fuels eight Northern California counties.

Beale and the rest of more than 400 U.S. military bases are under scrutiny for the newest round of U.S. military base realignments and closures. By May, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will put out a recommendation list of base changes with the goal of a 25-percent reduction. By November, President Bush will either fully accept or deny a final list, according to Col. Larry Wells, commander of the base’s 9th Reconnaissance Wing, which includes the famous U2 spy plane.

No one is sure of the exact monetary impact the base has on Nevada County, but economic officials and base employees say some airman live here and many come to the county to recreate and spend money. Local contractors make money on base projects, as well.

The Beale Regional Alliance Committee said in a 2003 document that the base is the single largest employer from Sacramento to the Oregon border. There are about 3,500 military personnel and almost 1,300 civilians employed at the base, or about 4,800 workers and a payroll of $340 million.

The impact of military retirees who live here could well be even deeper than those from the base. The retirees attracted by the base’s medical and commissary units also spend plenty in Nevada County and contribute to its tax base. The Air Force estimates that 25,000 retirees live in the eight-county Beale impact area of Nevada, Yuba, Sutter, Placer, Sacramento, El Dorado, Butte and Yolo counties.

Beale backers say its quiet nature and 23,000-acre land mass make it seemingly perfect for the U2 and the new pilotless Global Hawk reconnaissance mission and hope that the base realignment and closure officials take notice. The planes are not often seen or heard.

Encroaching growth on the base’s perimeter has not happened, keeping time and cattle land between the public and the base’s PAVE PAWS intercontinental ballistic missile radar system. It also hides a new intelligence squadron that scrutinizes the information beamed or brought back into Beale by spy aircraft.

Local worries

Ron Bartoli is a Lake Wildwood resident who sees Beale’s quiet demeanor as an actual detriment in the base realignment and closure process. Bartoli is a member of the Beale Military Liaison Committee, which is working to keep the base open.

“We need a bigger profile,” Bartoli said. The eight-county area “has a lot of retired military scattered here because it’s still an affordable place to live in California” near a base. “Beale is important to them.”

“We need to muster the community to say that Beale is a huge asset,” Bartoli said. He fears its lack of national recognition could hurt in the BRAC process. Bartoli does not give much weight to the Air Force taking into consideration Beale’s new flight tower, hangar remodeling, the new missions and ongoing renovations to sewer and water treatment plants to make much of a difference.

“I’m a little concerned. No one will realize the economic impacts in this area until it’s gone,” Bartoli said.

Fellow Beale committee member and base employee Dick Panzica is more optimistic. He is a retired U2 mission planner who now trains U2 pilots and navigators.

“This year’s BRAC is different,” Panzica said. BRAC processes have come in several waves since the late 1980s and early ’90s, with California losing 29 bases.

“Before it was done on one-way decisions without much feedback from the bases,” Panzica said. “This time they went to the bases and said ‘why should you not get cut?'” But Panzica said the base’s lack of encroachment, location and new missions could put it in a more favorable light.

Col. Wells cannot comment politically on Beale’s plight but said all U.S. military installations are in the same pool. “Nothing is safe and nothing is an absolute hit,” Wells said.

People have to remember that a large part of BRAC is realignment, Wells said. “Would it be cheaper to do things at another place or can we consolidate things? That’s what realignment is all about, putting like things at like bases.”

Boom or bust?

Tim Johnson of the Yuba-Sutter Economic Development Corporation thinks the U2, Global Hawk and 548th Intelligence Group rendezvous at Beale is just that and feels robotics companies could be attracted here by the Global Hawk technology.

Johnson said concerns expressed by Col. Wells about bad roads into Beale are slowly being taken care of, with $4.5 million spent on them in recent years, including the Hamilton-Smartville Road from Nevada County and the road to the Wheatland gate. The main road from Marysville is still troublesome, Johnson said.

What excites Johnson regarding Beale’s future is its expansion abilities. Only about 4,000 acres of Beale’s 23,000 acres are being used by the Air Force, and things are spread out. An expansion of just 3,000 acres could make the base as large as Mather and McClellan in Sacramento were before they were closed, he said.

What troubles Johnson is that California has lost a large number of bases since the late 1980s and could lose a lot more, because there are still many left here to fit into the 25 percent cut bracket.

“I think there’s a 50-percent chance or greater of Beale being closed because there’s just so many bases,” Johnson said. “We’ve lost 29 bases already and over 100,000 jobs.” According to the Beale committee, another 61 facilities remain in California, including Beale.

Johnson said the $500-million figure includes payroll and construction costs at Beale, which is smaller than the $1.2 billion total reached by adding in Beale employee spending and support economy.

For the Yuba-Sutter area, Beale represents 31 percent of the gross local product, Johnson said, “a staggering dependence” that would be lost with closure.

Another plus for Beale is the figure of Sen. Barbara Boxer. Although not known as a war hawk, Boxer has come to Beale’s defense twice, once in the mid-1990s and again last year for this BRAC round when she said during a visit, “it’s rare where you have a community that is so in love with its base.”

Some in Nevada County may not love the idea of the base or care what it means economically, but Larry Burkhardt sees merit in the institution. Burkhardt, the CEO of the county’s Economic Resource Council sees it as “an economic engine in our county.”

Beale status Web sites

To learn more about Beale Air Force Base and the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process, visit these two sites.

U.S. Department of Defense BRAC

http://www.defenselink.mil/brac/

Beale Regional Alliance Committee

http://www.savebeale.org