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Hard work, vision keys to air center redevelopment; Former airpark head talks about ‘national asset’ of RIAC

Some people would give their eye-teeth for the assets at the Roswell International Air Center, says Jon Grafton, retired executive director of the England Authority who talked at the Wednesday annual meeting of the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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The Roswell International Air Center and its 13,000-feet runway is a “national asset,” the former executive director of a Louisiana airpark told local business and government leaders Wednesday at the annual meeting of the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp.

“The runway, the ramp space, the undeveloped land, the lengths of rail spur and the weather that you have, the air space, these are the fundamental assets that some people will give their eye-teeth for,” said Jon W. Grafton after the meeting, which was held on the grounds of the Eastern New Mexico State Fair.

Grafton retired in May after 24 years as the executive director of the England Economic and Industrial Development District (England Authority), which governs the operations of the England Airpark. The Alexandria, Louisiana, airpark was created after the U.S. Defense Department closed the England Air Force Base in 1992.

He said that a drive-by tour of the Roswell International Air Center earlier in his visit made him aware of its aging hangars and buildings, but he says the fundamental assets — which also include adequate water supplies — are the keys to future job and business growth at the site.

During his talk, he said above-ground buildings should be seen as “almost throwaways” because they are either obsolete now or soon will be.

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“You want to ring the absolute maximum amount of money out of them as you can between the time you get them and the time you replace them,” he said. “What you can’t replace are the runways and taxiways. There isn’t enough money in the world to replace what you have out there.”

During his years with the England Authority, Grafton worked with a 10-member advisory board and managed a staff of more than 20 who helped turn the closed Air Force base into an economically healthy mixed-use industrial, retail and residential area.

Twenty-five years after the decommissioning, the airpark now supports 7,000 direct and indirect jobs in an eight-parish region and has added $1.8 billion to household income in the area. The self-supporting airpark also has a commercial and charter airport that has handled 5.8 million passengers since 1993.

Grafton told the 70 or so people gathered for the meeting that the city of Alexandria did not feel the sort of steep decline that many cities do after a base closure, but he acknowledged that the federal government has handled shutdowns much differently in recent decades than it did when the Walker Air Force Base closed in Roswell in 1967.

“Your community started with a disadvantage.  … The bases that were closed in the 1960s were not closed with the advantages of bases closed in the 1990s,” he said. “The law changed because of the mistakes that were made in the 1960s. You have to understand that.”

One difference for the England Airpark was that all of the land from the base, more than 3,600 acres, was given to the airpark. In the 1960s, the federal government, the state and other government or nonprofit agencies were able to maintain ownership and control of some of the land.

Grafton said he would recommend that Roswell International Air Center supporters, including legislators, work to “clawback” some advantages that are now given to cities when bases close.

He told the audience that the England Airpark’s success has had many factors. These include a big vision, daily hard work with the understanding that the task is never-ending, a targeted focus on job creation, a governing board committed to community progress rather than personal fiefdoms, and many successful legislative efforts, including the legislation that made the airpark a special economic district. He also talked about the group’s efforts to maximize partnerships with business, nonprofits and government entities and its willingness to adapt and overcome.

As an example of the last factor, he described efforts to build a golf course. He said he was told the idea was impossible for many reasons including its environmental impacts. “Not only did we build a golf course, but we won national awards for our golf course for being an environmentally sensitive project. You have to make it happen,” he said.

In a similar fashion, he said, the authority was able to push back against an effort to downscale the airport into a regional airport.

He also told the group that leaders need to recognize that each day that goes by is a day in which infrastructure and buildings age and get closer to being outmoded.

“Time is the worst enemy you have in base redevelopment,” he said. “You have to have a sense of urgency.”

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.