Democratic candidate for Governor Peter Cooke brought an Oklahoma County commissioner to talk about what his state did to get the U.S. Air Force to invest in the future of Tinker Air Force Base. Cooke blasted Gov. Gary Herbert for not planning ahead the way Oklahoma did, while at the same time acknowledging he didn’t have a specific plan himself for protecting Hill Air Force Base.
“What I’m tired of in this state is no plans,” Cooke said, chopping a conference table with the edge of his hand as he spoke. “No concept, no ideas. But here’s [Oklahoma County] that had a concept and a plan to get with the Air Force and understand what the process of transformation was.”
Cooke hailed the work of his guest speaker, Raymond Vaughn, an Oklahoma County commissioner who helped pass a 2008 county bond costing taxpayers $55 million to purchase a former General Motors plant that was then leased to the U.S. Air Force’s Tinker air base. Vaughn says that while the lease of the facility to the U.S. Air Force has not created the jobs his county had expected, it has increased efficiencies for existing military employees there and also helped the Air Force to commit to more than $100 million in investments into the project.
The investment, he says, is bringing jobs to the local economy and protecting the base from a possible budget axe, since the Obama administration announced earlier in the year the need to save money by shuttering unnecessary military installations and called for the creation of a Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission (known as BRAC) to identify bases that could be closed.
“There’s no such thing as a BRAC-proof base,” Vaughn said. “But what you try to do is to make a base so efficient it wouldn’t make sense to close it.”
Vaughn also acknowledged that the expansion to his county’s air base still includes roughly 1 million square feet of facility space that the Air Force has not developed yet, further protection he believes against a commission throwing away their investment in Tinker by closing the base down.
Cooke acknowledged, however, that part of Oklahoma’s success was “luck” since the state had a vacant General Motors facility sitting right next to their adjacent air base that they were able to develop, thanks to collaborations between leaders at all levels of government. Oklahoma's base -- like Utah’s HAFB -- is their top job provider.
Cooke challenged that the current administration needs to go on the offensive to find ways to make HAFB and its 26,000 military and civilian jobs an investment too crucial to be cut. Cooke, a retired two-star general of the U.S. Army Reserves, says Herbert has offered no specific plan on how he would protect HAFB.
“We need to be proactive in coming up with a game plan to move forward,” Cooke said. While Cooke couldn’t offer a specific plan comparable to the development partnership Oklahoma offered, or any specific plan to increase the profile of HAFB, he said his military experience would give him an edge in lobbying the Pentagon with a plan -- if he were elected.
“I have a track record of bringing two Army installations to this state and that took a lot of work,” Cooke said.
While the Air Force did downgrade the Ogden Air Logistics Center from a command structure led by a one-star general instead of a two-star general, in a statement, the Governor’s office argued it does take seriously protecting the base’s status in Utah. Governor's Office spokesman Marty Carpenter cited a increase in funding to the Utah Defense Alliance to help lobby for Utah’s defense industry.
“Gov. Herbert will continue to be a champion for HAFB, and he is confident it will thrive based on its strategic military value and because of the hard-working men and women on base -- not because of politics,” Carpenter writes in an e-mailed statement.
While Cooke’s call for action fell short of specifics, he repeated the importance of knowing how to approach the Air Force to pitch them on public-private partnerships or other plans to increase the value of HAFB.
It was a point echoed by Oklahoma County Commissioner Vaughn.
“The lesson we learned in Oklahoma is that you've got to be proactive,” Vaughn said.