By G. Michael Dobbs
The effort to change the plans to downsize the military mission at Westover Air Reserve base
(WARB) and to avoid cuts to Barnes Air National Guard Base
continued with a meeting between the Massachusetts Congressional delegation and the Secretary of the Air Force, along with an information session at WARB about a state effort to add value to the Commonwealth’s military installations.
On May 22, Congressman Richard Neal assembled much of the delegation to meet with Deborah Lee James, the Secretary of the Air Force. The announcement was made earlier this spring that the 439th Airlift Wing at WARB would lose more than 300 positions and about half of its C-5 transport planes under a cost reduction plan prompted by sequestration cuts.
Neal told Reminder Publications that at the end of the meeting James “did agree to continue the conversation and agreed to look again at the decision.”
Neal’s intent was to make sure James was aware of the 46,500 jobs and the $14.2 billion economic impact generated by the Commonwealth’s six military installations.
He said that James was impressed by both WARB and by Barnes and even more so by the investments made by the Patrick Administration to enhance the civilian and commercial side of WARB.
While Neal said, “there is no danger to the future for Westover and Barnes” in terms of either base closing, he added the military is “under duress” to make the cuts forced upon it by sequestration.
Chicopee Mayor Richard Kos said, “This was one of the most important meetings we’ve had the opportunity to have.”
Kos flew to Washington, D.C. to meet with James and added, “Neal did a tremendous job putting the delegation [together].” He noted that most of the Commonwealth’s representatives was there as well as Sen. Edward Markey. Sen. Elizabeth Warren could not attend due to a previous meeting that had been scheduled, but her chief of staff attended. Kos did meet with Warren in her office prior to the meeting with James and the senator expressed her support for WARB.
Kos said that James not only heard about the economic impacts and the community support, but also about the $177 million bond bill signed by Gov. Deval Patrick in March to underwrite public and private sector growth at the six bases. He added that expanding “the civilian component makes Westover more attractive to the military.”
Joe Mitchell, City Advancement Officer for Westfield, also took part in the meeting with James.
Mitchell said, “It was the opening of a dialogue. We shared what the Commonwealth is doing to make its bases viable.” Mitchell and the other Massachusetts representatives told James “there is a difference in the Commonwealth because the state is a partner with the bases.”
He cited the example of the new runway at Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport
where the 104th Fighter Wing is stationed, as collaboration among departments. The $14 million cost of the project was offset by an $8.7 million Federal Aviation Administration grant for runway construction, $4.6 million from the U.S. Department of Defense and by additional state and local monies.
According to Mitchell, James noted that the availability of higher education within its boundaries sets Massachusetts apart from other states. The ability to provide an “educated workforce” is another “component that makes the Massachusetts bases viable.”
The subject of increasing the civilian and commercial presence at WARB was the subject of a public forum conducted by the Military Asset and Security Strategy Task Force on May 27 at the base. Adam Freunberg, the policy advisor for the governor on such matters and the executive director of the task force, said, “Massachusetts, of a small state has a very large [military] presence.”
He explained that what state officials are doing with the forums conducted around the Commonwealth is to gather “complementary ideas” that with the approval by the Air Force could reduce the military’s costs of operating the bases.
Chris Willenborg, the administrator of the Aeronautics Division of MassDOT, noted that with Westover, which already has a civilian air operation and terminal, suggestions have included increasing the presence of air cargo operations. WARB benefits from being near major highways, he added.
Willenborg also said the fact a commercial air terminal already is in place means state officials and others would like to attract “ultra low cost airlines” to the civilian side. To do so, the hours of operation for the runway would have to increase from its present 16 hours a day to 24 hours.
Willenborg said the task force would like to complete its report and recommendations in the next four months and have an implementation plan for the next four to five years.
The Military Bond Bill gives the state a pool of $177 million to assist in implementing the plan. The monies will not be used to replace any lost federal funding.
Lt. Col. Thatcher Kezer of the Massachusetts Air National Guard and the former mayor of Amesbury cited one example of how the city of Natick developed a recycling program that combined the municipal one with that of the U.S. Army’s Natick Soldier Systems Center.
Carley Dangona contributed to this story.