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Del Rio Civic Leaders Launch Laughlin Task Force to Protect the Base

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Taking a page from community-supported protection of military missions, Jerry Simpton, president, The Bank & Trust, organized and greeted a group of citizens, Monday (Feb. 25), with a mission, "To enhance and strengthen Laughlin Air Force Base as a vital asset of the U.S. Government."

Simpton introduced the Laughlin Task Force members - 28 in attendance at the bank's boardroom - then explained, "What we are trying to do is follow the pattern of the task force in San Antonio." Simpton reported that he attended a meeting of a similar task force there with 60 in attendance, emphasizing the importance of participating in a power structure that was essentially the same group of people that brought Toyota to San Antonio and 8,000 new jobs.

The scope of work for the Laughlin Task Force, as described by Simpton, is to work with the Air Force, the U.S. government and members of the community to strengthen and expand the mission of Laughlin. "When you see what's happening in San Antonio, it really makes you feel good about what a community can do, with a valid interest in helping each other, and maybe someday we'll get to that point," Simpton said, Tuesday (Feb. 26).

Oruba said he will assist the Task Force in making appointments on Capitol Hill and in offices throughout Washington. "We'll help you to at least get your foot in the door," said Oruba, adding that he'll be available for the duration of his fellowship, through December. Oruba also urged the Task Force members to take a close look at Cannon Air Force Base, Clovis, N.M. as a case study of a community's interest in preserving the local installation by acquiring new mission responsibilities.

Simpton asked Oruba how he would propose the Task Force work with the Air Force to solidify the base's presence here. Oruba replied that, again, ideas for new missions should be courted as an appropriate inquiry, and that the ideas need not be strictly Air Force tasks, that they could include National Guard and other federal uses of the base.

Task Force member Robert Kusenburger Sr. told the group that examples of further cooperation are unfolding, including the use of Del Rio International Airport for weekend training flights when - because of staff reductions - air traffic control on weekends at Laughlin is shut down.

Val Verde County Commissioner Ramiro Ramon updated the Task Force on the planned Del Rio Relief Route, or loop, that will transect the land just west of the base, curving westward to an intersection with U.S. Highway 90 West. Ramon said the environmental clearances have been completed along probable routes of right-of-way, and no hazards or significant disturbances have been noted. Groundbreaking for the long-anticipated route will occur in April, and Ramon anticipates traffic on the road within two years, though previous estimates by contracted engineers project completion in 2012.

Ramon also stated that the base's existing Main Gate access from U.S. Highway 90 East will be closed when the loop road becomes operational, and the current West Gate will become the Main Gate. But Jennifer Harris, chief of base development and community planning, cautioned that no such decision has been made, to date. "No determination has been made whether to close the Main Gate. All possibilities have been discussed, including that one, but nothing's been decided. We plan to wait until the loop is built, see how traffic flows and what gates are needed, and then we can decide what's best in terms of any gate closures, but right now, no, there's no decision," Harris said, Tuesday (Feb. 26).

Task Force member Nick Khoury asked Ramon about a policy requiring military installations to have at least two points of ingress and egress. Again, Harris: "We do have Air Force instruction that tells us that we need to minimize the number of entry control points to the base to those that we need to perform our mission. But, for us, that's one full-time gate, with a secondary that we can use for emergencies, or, as when we have construction and we have to close our primary as we did recently, those types of actions."

Simpton invited Val Verde County Judge Mike L. Fernandez to offer comments. Fernandez took the floor to tell the group that development can be expected in the area adjacent to south Del Rio, and along the loop. "We're in favor of non-encroachment; we've got to protect our Air Force Base," said Fernandez, without elaborating on who "we" are. But the loop's construction will open the area to development, he explained. "Development can bring up the economy there, with a better tax base."

Simpton advised Task Force members that quarterly meetings are expected, but, initially, may be more frequent. He agreed with member requests that he take the helm as chairman, initially. Tuesday, Simpton said he wants to hold off on selection of a vice chairman and any other officers until members get a clearer idea of the role-and-function of the Task Force.

Tuesday, Simpton outlined advance preparation for the next Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) as one of those roles. "If you wait until the BRAC happens, it's too late. The decisions are already made. What we're proposing to do now is a long haul deal. Whenever congressmen and senators come down here, we need to be informed and able to tell them what we need, now and to be ready for the future.

"The JLUS [Joint Land Use Study] project - plus the joint city/county airport commission - have some authority, but it appears to be limited. We need to look at what impact we can have on the effectiveness of all compatible growth. For example, I think San Antonio is going to push for additional power for cities to have more and better zoning around military bases. They think they've got a good shot at it," said Simpton, adding that such regulatory authority would probably be sought by any city or town near a military base of economic significance to the region.

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