March 15, 2015 – Corpus Christi Caller-Times (via Stars & Stripes), By Matt Woolbright
CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (Tribune News Service) -- When the T-45 Goshawks soar through the skies over Kingsville, few in town don’t know it.
The expansive fields uninterrupted by towering buildings or dramatic geography changes make the city of 26,000 an ideal training ground for aspiring pilots.
The topography gives the community a chance to see nearly every barrel roll, sharp bank and takeoff that Navy and Marine Corps pilots perform while they learn the basics of flying military jets.
But it’s not the aerial display that Kingsville and the surrounding communities embrace as a symbol of their respect for the city’s biggest economic engine.
It’s the roar.
A billboard along U.S. Highway 77 just north of town encapsulates that emotion. It reads, “Kingsville loves jet noise.”
Kingsville’s beloved rumble could become nothing more than a memory any year if the Department of Defense deems Naval Air Station Kingsville is no longer needed for national security. That’s not going to happen any time soon. Government officials have said as much.
But local leaders are being proactive to show legislators and the federal government the depth of the Coastal Bend’s commitment to the military. It’s economic, but it’s also a psychological tie, too. With the base in Kingsville, Naval Air Station Corpus Christi and the Corpus Christi Army Depot, the region is a military one.
“It’s just a part of our heritage,” Nueces County Judge Loyd Neal said. “I guess I can imagine us not being a naval town, but it wouldn’t be very pleasant.”
Troops come to train here. They protect the nation from these posts. They live here and retire here. The bases and installations support the enlisted, the officers and civilians. When bases close in communities like they did in Beeville and Ingleside, lives change, and leaders don’t want to see a Base Realignment and Closure affect this region again.
Those decisions aren’t made lightly, and several variables are considered if Congress approves a nationwide round of BRAC.
Regional and state leaders are urging lawmakers in Austin to appropriate $150 million this legislative session to Texas’ 15 military installations. They hope such an influx will increase the bases’ value to Washington and dissuade the Pentagon from looking here when it comes time to trim the budget.
The next round of BRAC could come within the next two years, though U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, said recently his colleagues in Congress have rejected BRAC proposals in recent years and likely will continue that trend. Proponents of the increased funding said if money is not dedicated this year, it may be too late when the Legislature convenes next in 2017.
“It has to happen now,” Corpus Christi Mayor Nelda Martinez said. “We can’t wait another year.”
For the service members who clock-in at NAS Kingsville every day, that billboard’s message makes their jobs a little easier and life here a little better.
“This area is very supportive of the military,” Air Controlman 2nd Class James Scott said after finishing a shift at the air traffic control tower on base. “It’s definitely a morale boost when people around town actually care about what we do. ... It’s nice that people around time take time to thank you for serving in the military.”
But it’s not just the one sign or a certain group of supportive citizens. There are dozens of other tokens around town -- the warm smiles sailors in uniform are greeted with in public, the discounts that come with flashing military identification or the highway overpass where a picture of a Navy training jet is etched into the stone.
The military is interwoven into the fabric of Kingsville, and it has been since the base was founded in 1942, shortly after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor -- and the same can be said for Corpus Christi.
“It’s much more than a money thing,” said Kresten Cook, deputy to the commander at the Corpus Christi Army Depot. “It’s the relationship the community has and the ties they have to the military.”
He said business owners regularly sponsor promotions and events catered toward the military personnel here. One of his fondest memories is when a female sergeant returned from a free dove hunt south of town beaming. It was her first time to shoot a shotgun.
“She said that was the best day of her life,” Cook recalled with a smile.
And beyond the weekend events and annual outings, there is also an ever-present military aura engulfing Corpus Christi. The blue hue of the Lexington Museum on the Bay at night, the proficiency of military pilots doing touch-and-go exercises in their orange-and-white training aircraft at Cabaniss Field and the solemnness of the Coastal Bend State Veterans Cemetery are just a few examples of the city’s deep ties with America’s armed forces.
Capt. Christopher Misner, commanding officer of NAS Kingsville since June 2013, had 19 options when he was deciding where he wanted to move his family for their next station. He chose Kingsville in no small part because of the surrounding community.
“The Texas community loves its military,” said Misner who commissioned as an officer in 1990. “The community is an integral part of my battle space because good neighbors are force multipliers.”
But a good partnership is mutually beneficial, and Misner knows it. That’s why he focused heavily on advertising the base’s 2014 air show, and the result was more than 120,000 attending. The previous record was about 80,000.
“I can’t do what we do without the folks here,” Misner said. “They take care of my sailors.”
Locals make meals for military families when a baby is born or others volunteer to mow lawns and perform regular household maintenance when a service member is deployed.
But it goes deeper. In fall 2013, the base mourned the death of a pilot, and a church provided lunch for everyone at the funeral, which included people from the community who had no connection to the pilot or the base beyond calling the same region home.
“Community involvement has to be critical part of what we do,” Misner said. “I have to produce between 100 and 120 Navy aviators a year. I’m going to do that, but it’s a heck of a lot easier with the community’s support.”
In the early 1990s, Ingleside beamed with pride and the economy was on the rise as headlines talked about the promise and resources that were destined for the city’s new naval station.
But that celebration and identity was short lived. In 2005, during the most recent round of Base Realignment and Closure, Naval Station Ingleside was selected.
From 1990 to 2000, the city’s population increased 65 percent to 9,300, but the population stagnated during the next decade. The city’s sales tax revenue growth also slowed after Naval Station Ingleside and its 4,000 jobs left town.
Ingleside was fortunate because the Eagle Ford Shale boom brought workers to the region and helped spur Occidental Petroleum Corp.’s decision to purchase the naval station land in 2012.
“Most communities have not done as well as Ingleside has,” said Ingleside City Manager Jim Gray, who has studied 15 to 20 communities that lost military bases to a round of BRAC.
Major investments totaling nearly $1 billion are slated to break ground in Ingleside and the surrounding areas, but the city’s course changed when the Pentagon shuttered the base and there is no going back.
“We will never replace those jobs,” Gray said. The best-case scenario, he added, would be to add 1,500 jobs in the next decade.
“It changed the community and some people in the community would say it’s for the better and others would say they don’t like the (industrial growth),” Gray said.
In the midst of World War II, Beeville became home for some pilots in training when the municipal airport was leased to the Navy. The operation, dubbed Chase Field, continued for half a century before the base was shuttered in 1993.
Like Ingleside, a significant portion of Beeville’s post-Navy identity was determined by what replaced the military facility, and in this case the replacements were two Texas prisons.
“It changed the whole economy,” said James Cox, who lived in Beeville before and after the closure. “It made the town go from a nice naval town to a trouble hot spot.”
Beeville Chief of Police Jose Trevino, who started as a patrol officer there in 1990, said crime rates “across the board” rose in the years after the Navy base closing.
“The biggest increases were the petty thefts and misdemeanor drug charges,” Trevino said.
Still, Trevino said he couldn’t tell if those crime rates were caused by the base closing and the military families leaving.
The military families stationed at Chase Field lived in a neighborhood known as the Capehart area, and Trevino said the neighborhood -- like the rest of the city -- sees more crime now than before, and there was a noticeable difference in the landscaping after the military families left.
“When they were living there, it was a very nice neighborhood,” Trevino said. “It’s still a nice neighborhood, but back then I don’t remember any vacant houses, and they had the income and military mindset to keep their houses and lawns trimmed and tidy.”
Immediately following the base’s closure, business activity diminished downtown, and civilians who worked on base either moved or found work in other cities, Trevino said.
The economy slowly recovered when the prisons opened in 1992 and 1994, he said.
The three military facilities in this region combine to contribute more than $6.4 billion to the Texas economy, and the 15 military installations statewide together employ more than a quarter-million here, according to a June 2014 document prepared by the State Comptroller’s Office.
The Corpus Christi Army Depot, which employs only 15 military personnel, is the region’s largest employer, said Iain Vasey, the new president of the Corpus Christi Regional Economic Development Corp. The depot is the largest helicopter repair facility in the world and employs about 5,000 people.
And the depot’s benefit to the regional economy isn’t just the size of its payroll. The operation, located on the NAS Corpus Christi grounds where pilots learn the basics of flying, provides primary jobs, which means rather than circulating money already in the area to more employers, it grows the local economy, Vasey said.
“Almost all the revenue is coming in from outside the region. The money’s coming from contracts from the federal government through the military,” Vasey said.
Additionally, unlike the two naval air stations, employees at the depot are not subject to regular transfers and deployments throughout the world.
“They pay taxes and they buy houses here, so it’s an ongoing economic engine in the community,” Cook said of his mostly civilian workforce.
Nueces County Judge Loyd Neal moved here with his wife in 1963, so he saw the economic collapse of the 1980s when plummeting oil prices crippled Corpus Christi’s economy for nearly a decade. Losing the bases on the bay would be just as devastating, he said recently.
“There is nothing we can do as a community to replace 5,000 industrial jobs. Nothing,” Neal said. “If the dominoes fall, they’ll fall hard, and I don’t want to be county judge if that happens because that’s not going to be going to be a fun time.”
In Austin, local lawmakers are confident the state budget, which currently includes $30 million in funding for the state’s military bases, will ultimately include money to strengthen the military presence here.
“There will always be traction for military proposals because Texas is pro-veteran,” said state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi. “What’s hard to tell is the amount.”
Rep. J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, said he’s “sure we’re going to get at least $30 million,” and Farenthold said that number should “absolutely” increase to $150 million. At the Corpus Christi Army Depot, some of that money could go to replacing infrastructure that’s been in place since the base was built during World War II, or to installing lighting along the base’s portion of Ocean Drive that separates the main building from the main stretch of hangars. That project would cost about $2 million, Cook said.
“The military is concerned about their budget,” he said, “and when they can get local partnership it saves them money and sends message community welcomes them.”
Please note: This article was originally published by the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.
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