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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News
Hill Air Force Base workers fix F-16s. Maintenance is also done at Hill on the A-10 and C-130 cargo plane.
Second in a four-part series

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Imagine losing an entire city in an instant.

It could happen here.

This city known as Hill Air Force Base is one of roughly 400 military installations awaiting its fate in the upcoming round of base closures.

"We've got everything you could ever need, all right here," said Marilu Trainor, public affairs director at the Ogden Air Logistics Center. "We're just another small town."

Hill is just like any other city in America — plus barbed wire fence surrounding its borders and the armed guards as you cross city lines.

Grab a bite to eat at the local burger joint, check out a book at the library or cash a check at one of the many credit unions — it's all here at Hill.

Sure, everything might seem normal. But underneath that cool demeanor is a growing fear that everything could be gone in the blink of an eye.

That fear is brewing as the latest round of base closures looms.

"It better not close," said Brandon Millis, who was recently hired as a machinist at the base. "A lot of people could lose their jobs."

Economic devastation

Hill Air Force Base is the largest employer in Utah, with nearly 24,000 workers.

Losing that alone would be devastating, considering Hill salaries are almost double the average salary in the state, said Rick Mayfield, executive director of the Utah Defense Alliance.

Then consider the $2.8 billion impact the base has on the state economy.

"It would be a Great Depression for Davis County, Weber County, northern Utah and even for the entire state of Utah," said Wilf Sommerkorn, Davis County's director of community and economic development. "That would be a pretty big hit to the state economy."

A 2004 study by the University of Utah's Bureau of Economic and Business Research details the potential aftershocks of closing Hill:

• 31,000 fewer people would live in Utah.

• Since the earnings of civilians working at Hill are almost double the state average, it would take almost 68,000 new jobs to offset the loss of $2.35 billion in earnings. Utah has not experienced that rate of job growth since the mid-'90s.

• Utah's per-capita personal income would decrease by $542 statewide and $2,600 in Davis County.

• During the first year of a three-year phased closing of Hill, employment and population in Davis County would decline. The losses would be so large that the county would not return to 2005 employment levels until 2014.

"As one of Utah's largest employers, Hill clearly makes a significant contribution to the state and has an even greater impact on those communities in close proximity to the base," the study says. "The loss of Hill AFB translates to lost jobs and income for Utah workers, reduces the number of households that can be supported and permanently changes the structure and size of the Utah economy."

Stacking the deck

Avoiding that fate is no easy task.

One possible strategy is to educate the Pentagon that Hill is the perfect example of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's new vision for the military — a transformed fighting power that works and trains together, said Vickie McCall, executive director of the Utah Defense Alliance.

"The base is better if it has a diversity of missions," said Jim Hansen, the former Utah congressman who has been appointed to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission.

Done.

Hill already has a diverse mix of missions, McCall said. It's what people at Hill call the "three-legged stool" — a maintenance depot, the Utah Test and Training Range and two F-16 fighter jet units.

The Ogden Air Logistics Center is one of three huge air logistics centers in the nation. It is responsible for engineering and logistics management of the F-16 fighter and the A-10 "tank killer" aircraft, as well as the Peacekeeper missile. It performs maintenance for the F-16, the A-10 and the giant C-130 cargo plane.

The Utah Test and Training Range is an "indispensable asset" to the Defense Department, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said. The range includes 12,574 square miles of airspace, where F-16 pilots can train in air-to-air combat in a geographical match to the places U.S. troops are fighting today — Iraq and Afghanistan.

Two F-16 fighter wings support U.S. operations abroad.

Pilots from Hill's active-duty 388th Fighter Wing patrol the no-fly zone south of the 33rd parallel in Iraq about six months per year. During Operation Desert Storm, pilots from the 388th dropped more than 2.7 million pounds of conventional munitions in Iraq and Kuwait during almost 4,000 combat sorties without a single combat loss.

Reserves from Hill's 419th Fighter Wing provide combat-ready forces capable of worldwide deployment.

"We're the best of the best," said John Grubb, 309th Missile Maintenance Group ground system repair section chief. "We need to keep our workloads here."

Another factor in Hill's favor is the base's highly trained, dependable and educated work force, McCall said.

The base runs a partnership with local colleges to provide continual education to employees at the base. Personnel problems are at a minimum, and the work gets done with few complaints, she said.

In a nutshell, Hill is the best at its game, said Lt. Col. Mike Moore.

"Nobody trains to the level of depot proficiency that we do," said Moore, who leads the 649th Combat Logistics Support Squadron in repairing F-16s. "Nobody does it. We deploy anytime, any day. We are on call 24/7 and we will go anywhere in the world, any time."

That's just the beginning. Hill has much more room to grow.

Hill sits on 6,698 acres of land on the Davis/Weber County line. The base houses more than 1,400 buildings on that land and can easily build more, Mayfield said.

With so much room to grow, Hill can easily accommodate Defense Department needs, Huntsman said.

"If it's software development that is important, then that is where we want to place our resources," Huntsman said. "If it is the depot component, as the F-16 phases out and the FA-22 phases in for depot work and longer term bringing in a wing of F-35 Joint Task Force Strike Fighters, then we want to make sure we are there to play whatever supporting role we can to make that all a smooth and seamless transition."

Room to grow

That ability to grow could be the thing that hurts Hill most in the BRAC process, Mayfield said.

Defense Department officials might look at all the excess space at Hill and see it as a waste, he said.

"We have a tremendous amount of room to grow, but it is a double-edged sword," Mayfield said.

Some of that growth came from a new process base officials are using that cuts down on excess capacity. For instance, at the Ogden Air Logistics Center's F-16 repair line, production chief Wayne Hansen has employed a "lean manufacturing" process that pinpoints inefficiencies in every step of the repair process.

Every F-16 in the entire United States mobility will, at some point, be repaired at Wayne Hansen's F-16 repair line, he said.

"We get these planes in and out of here and back to the war fighter as fast as possible," Hansen said. "You can't figure out how to do this out of a book. This is strictly depot maintenance."

With so much excess capacity, Defense Department and BRAC officials could say "you're not fully utilizing your installation" and move work from Hill to another base and reduce cost, McCall said.

But, on the flip side, defense officials could reward Hill for reducing excess capacity by granting the base more workload, she said.

No matter how BRAC or Defense Department officials decide to interpret Hill's lean transformation, the base will continue to follow waste-cutting principles.

"Our objective is to continue making the operations at Hill lean and mean, continue making ourselves the big fighting machine that we are," said Col. Sharon Dunbar, commander of the 75th Air Base Wing.

The golden question

Can Hill survive?

No one really knows.

"It all comes back to the support we get from our community," Dunbar said. "Everyone has to deal with base realignment or closure, all the services — everyone is on the table. The unique aspects of the operations at Hill and the support from the community will continue to bolster Hill Air Force Base."

Huntsman is optimistic. He credits a successful partnership with the state to fund new jobs as a plus for Hill in the BRAC process. The Legislature recently approved a $5 million kitty to bring new jobs to the base.

"I think we can certainly stand tall on the advantages we have as a community that play supporting roles for Hill Air Force Base and its long-term viability," Huntsman said. "I think that at the end of the day is where commissioners are going to look very closely and no doubt make a final decision based upon that.

As for Jasey Colunga, he'll believe the BRAC rumors when he sees it. The Davis County native just gotten a job at the base and said he plans on keeping it for a long, long time.

"When the actual time when you drive up to the gate and they say, 'Sorry, we're closed,' that's when I'll believe it," Colunga said.



Coming Tuesday: Sizing up the competition