State Politics

Fort Worth officials ready to protect ‘sound of freedom’ at military base

Watch the 301st Fighter Wing train at NAS Fort Worth

Members of the 301st Fighter Wing of the U.S. Air Force Reserve train year round at NAS Fort Worth/Joint Reserve Base with their F-16C Fighting Falcon fighters to stay ready for to fulfill their missions. (Star-Telegram/Rodger Mallison)
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Members of the 301st Fighter Wing of the U.S. Air Force Reserve train year round at NAS Fort Worth/Joint Reserve Base with their F-16C Fighting Falcon fighters to stay ready for to fulfill their missions. (Star-Telegram/Rodger Mallison)

Nearly any day of the week, the roar of airplanes on the city’s west side is loud enough to temporarily drown out conversations.

But longtime locals will tell you what a welcome sound those airplane engines from the military’s Joint Reserve Base make.

“When a plane goes over us, you stop talking,” Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said. “You say, ‘Just a minute: It’s the sound of freedom.’ 

That noise is never overestimated in Fort Worth, a military town that lost its base in the early 1990s but soon regained it in a renewed fashion.

Now, as Texas and other states are gearing up to protect their military bases from a proposal to open new base closure hearings, local officials are ready to stand on the front lines to protect its installation here.

“We’ve lived through one BRAC in this community ... and [saw] the devastating effect a BRAC can have,” Price recently told a legislative committee in Fort Worth. “So much of the west side was shut down.

“But we were able to make lemonade out of lemons and reinvent that base,” she said. “Now it is a premier reserve base. ... And we are very protective of that base.”

betsy price
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price Max Faulkner

At least one state lawmaker says a key to protecting bases in Texas — where more than a dozen military installations contribute $150 million each year to the state’s economy — is preserving the land around those bases.

State Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, has been traveling around the state, working to shore up support for a measure to protect encroachment zones around the state’s military bases. This, he believes, will put Texas in better standing if there’s another round of Base Realignment and Closure hearings.

A proposal to protect Texas bases could come up when lawmakers head back to the Capitol on July 18.

He hopes to push such a plan through the upcoming special session that starts July 18.

“As we look at BRAC in the future, we need to do everything we can to protect our mission here,” said Gutierrez, who heads the House Defense & Veterans’ Affairs Committee that recently met in Fort Worth. “It’s coming, BRAC, unfortunately.

“We need to make sure we are protecting our military bases from closure,” he said. “So we have to look at every piece of legislation that can help us or hurt us.”

He found agreement in Fort Worth, home to the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, which was created after Carswell Air Force Base was ordered closed during the 1991 BRAC hearings. The thriving base now houses dozens of tenant commands from multiple services.

“Fort Worth stands ready at all costs to fight a BRAC,” Price said. “We need those jobs, we need the income it produces.”

Bracing for BRAC

More recently, a group of experts sent an open letter to Congress asking for BRAC hearings to whittle down “excess capacity” this year.

“BRAC has proven to be a fair and efficient process for making the difficult but necessary decisions related to the configuration of our military’s infrastructure,” according to the letter.

Base closings have long been proposed, but Congress has repeatedly rejected such a move since the last round of BRAC hearings were held in 2005.

But at a time where there has been a reduction in troops — and dollars funding the military — some may give it more consideration.

State lawmakers recently took testimony on the issue of BRAC and annexation at Fort Worth City Hall. Anna M. Tinsley

Texas and local officials are on guard, ready to defend bases in cities from Fort Worth to San Antonio.

They know what it’s like to lose a base.

In 1991, Carswell wasn’t even on the original closure list and by the time it was added, local officials only had six months to prepare a defense. In the end, the 7th Bomb Wing was moved to Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, the base transitioned to Carswell Air Force Reserve Station and residents started leaving.

Around the same time, west Fort Worth was also hit when the giant General Dynamics fighter plant (now Lockheed Martin) laid off around 3,400 workers when then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney canceled the A-12 aircraft program. That layoff whittled about 13 percent off the plant’s workforce.

Small businesses from newspapers to barber shops shut down in the communities around the base, as the nearby population dropped.

But local officials quickly regrouped and soon successfully pushed for a joint reserve base to be created at the former Carswell, consolidating commands from Naval Air Station Dallas and missions in other states as well.

The joint reserve base opened in 1994 and has long shared a runway with Lockheed, which bought General Dynamics’ jet fighter division in 1993.

The base — the largest such facility in the country — has become one of the area’s largest employers, with more than 9,700 people working there. That’s up from the heyday of around 7,500 employees in its Air Force days.

State officials say the Fort Worth base provides 48,000 direct and indirect jobs, contributing about $6.6 billion to the state’s economy each year.

U.S. Rep. Kay Granger fought for the base when she was Fort Worth’s mayor in the 1990s and continues to fight for it today.

“We don’t want to lose that base again,” said Granger, R-Fort Worth, who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee. “I watch that base like crazy.”

Special session

The issue of protecting bases arose earlier this year during the waning hours of the regular state legislative session that wrapped up on Memorial Day.

There was a controversial annexation bill, Senate Bill 715, geared to let homeowners weigh in when a city wants to annex their land.

An amendment to allow land use regulations around some Texas military bases to prevent encroachment was stripped from the bill — and as a result, state Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, filibustered the bill for more than two hours and killed it.

Gutierrez, a San Antonio state representative, wants to try again during the special session to pass a measure protecting encroachment zones around military bases. The proposal could stand alone or be added to an annexation bill expected to make its way through the Legislature, he said.

“We all know the importance of the military to our state,” Gutierrez said. “We are looking forward toward making sure as we approach a BRAC that our land use is respected around our military installations.”

Granger said this is a key issue to watch for, as locals do everything they can to protect the base.

“It’s never too early to be safe,” she said. “We just can never be too prepared.”

‘Fight of our lives’

One key to protecting bases is to boost “operational effectiveness,” said Fort Worth City Councilman Dennis Shingleton, whose district includes Naval Air Station Fort Worth.

Fort Worth City Councilman Dennis Shingleton Stephen Schmitt

That’s why there’s a protected area outside NAS-JRB Fort Worth where officials in 14 communities work to ensure that no schools, hospitals or churches locate in zones immediately outside the base, said Shingleton, who is working with Price and Texas Mayors of Military Communities to protect military bases across the Texas.

But he and others want to continue to protect those areas, and they say a state law protecting encroachment zones around this and other bases in Texas will only help.

“We absolutely have to protect Fort Worth and other communities,” Gutierrez said, noting the scenario, remote as it might be, that a “millennial billionaire” could move to town, buy acreage near the base and build a skyscraper that would impact the base’s operations.

“For this fight, there’s no D and R,” Gutierrez said. “We are in the fight of our lives on this one.”

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley