By Army Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, American Forces Press Service
AUSTIN, Texas, 3/15/2005 (AFPN) —Though the fear of losing jobs and revenue grips nearby cities and towns when the Defense Department decides to close a military installation, the bad news can be made good. Such was the case when Bergstrom Air Force Base here closed in 1993, its fate sealed by the 1991 Base Realignment and Closure process.
Jim Halbrook, public information officer with Austin’s department of aviation, was part of a transition team looking into how to make the Air Force base a viable asset for the city. The view then, he said, was “instead of this being bad news, lets make this an opportunity. To use a cliché, how can we turn lemons into lemonade?”
Bergstrom was home to two Air Force Reserve units, the 924th Fighter Wing and 10th Air Force. It also was home base for the 67th Reconnaissance Wing of what was then the Air Force’s Tactical Air Command. The 924th FW would remain at the airfield, but 10th Air Force moved to Naval Air Station Fort Worth. The 67th emerged from the closure as the 67th Intelligence Wing and moved to Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio. According to DOD projections in 1993, expenditures at Bergstrom were about $17.8 million a year, and closing the base would cut costs by as much as $75.2 million between 1996 and 2001.
“The initial reaction was ‘Oh no, our local Air Force base is closing,’” Mr. Halbrook said. However, shortly after the base was put on the list for closure, he said, the city became proactive. “Everybody got behind it really quick. There was a lot of community support for it, and then the city went out with an educational process to sell the community on its plan.”
Shortly thereafter, the community approved, by 63 percent, $400 million in revenue bonds to convert Bergstrom Air Force Base into Austin’s new airport facility. As it turned out, Bergstrom’s closure was a positive for Austin, Mr. Halbrook said.
The community at first lobbied to keep the base open, citing among its many arguments that closing the base would result in loss of jobs and an economic impact of more than $339 million yearly. And, in fact, when Bergstrom closed in September 1993, it resulted in the loss of 3,940 military and 927 civilian positions. Though the 924th Fighter Wing did remain, it later was deactivated as part of the 1995 BRAC process, bringing a final end to military presence at the air base.
“Every community is, of course, different and affected differently,” Mr. Halbrook said. “But in our case, we actually benefited from the closing.” The growing city was in need of a new airport to replace the aging Robert Meuller municipal airport that had served the city since the 1930s, and when Bergstrom was listed as a possible BRAC closure, the city “immediately started looking at the airfield as a possible avenue for expansion.”
“The timing was good for us, in turning what would have been bad news into an opportunity,” he continued. “We were searching for a new airport site, and it helped that the Defense Department worked with us to make it happen. It didn’t happen overnight; it was a long process to get it built, but it has been a success story as far a redevelopment of a base, as far as a base closure and the potential it can have for opportunity,” he said.
The Bergstrom-Austin International Airport, as it was named after its conversion, opened in 1999, and now has 25 gates and serves 7.2 million passengers each year. Halbrook said the successful conversion is one of the success stories in how BRAC can benefit a community. He said the airport has created thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue.
State and local taxpayers saved an estimated $200 million in land acquisition and runway construction costs alone by transforming the former base into the $690 million international airport. The airport’s contribution to the city is about $1.8 billion a year. It created roughly 35,700 jobs and 21,500 “visitor-related” jobs in the local area.
The airport’s success already has planners looking toward the future. When yearly passenger totals reach 8 million, the airport plans to add as many as 10 extra gates. If the total surpasses 10 million passengers, it may have to build a new terminal.”
Although the airport’s success has been astounding, Mr. Halbrook said the impact of Bergstrom Air Force Base still is missed. “Any time you lose $339 million — that’s significant, There is a lot of pride with having a military base within a community; people take pride in that.”
Fortunately for the city, the loss was not as devastating on the local community because the city had other viable economic interests. Nevertheless, to lessen any economic loss to the city, planners left nothing to waste on its Bergstrom reuse plan. With the plans for a new airport under way, about half the land from the old airport was sold off to private entities to build a new housing development. The rest of it became the base for the city’s new film industry.
At the former base along Spirit of Texas Avenue, the city kept many of the old buildings to be used again. The airport’s aviation department is one of many offices housed in several of them. Other base structures, including hundreds of military family housing units, were auctioned to private buyers and moved off the base.
The city also was saved from building new runways by keeping those already in place. The base’s runways were capable of handling heavy aircraft, like B-52 Stratofortress bombers. “That’s an asset for a city that wants to become an international airport to land really large planes on,” he said.
Paved roadways were reused, the materials from some of them crushed to make roadbeds for new roads at the airport. The base’s large fuel tanks also were relocated and kept for reuse. Aside from the few remaining buildings and hangars left from the conversion, the only signs of the base’s past at this modern facility are located at the pre-checkpoint side of the terminal, where a small museum relates the 52-year history of the base.
And the Defense Department has found its way back onto the grounds it once owned,. Two Army National Guard units have taken up residence at the south entrance of one of the airport’s runways. Their presence is more good news for Bergstrom International Airport and the city of Austin. “Who do you call when there is an emergency or a disaster? Who do you call to fill sandbags when there is a flood and storms?” Mr. Halbrook asked. “It’s a good thing that they are here, not only for the airport and local community, but for all of central Texas as well.”