The long-range future of the Niagara Falls Air Force Reserve Base and the 2,600 people who work there may be on the line when U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta visits the base Thursday morning.
"He is one of the highest ranking officials we have had coming to Niagara Falls, and we hope he will be able to see the viability of the base," Niagara Military Affairs Council chairman Merrell A. Lane said Monday.
Lane said he hoped the defense secretary would reverse an Air Force recommendation to close the base and reduce the role of the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard as cost-cutting measures in the next few years.
"It is exciting to look forward to his visit, and we hope community representatives will be able to convince him of the importance of the base to the local economy as well as to national defense," Lane said.
He added, however, that the precise schedule for Panetta's visit has not been determined, and it is uncertain whether members of the Niagara Military Affairs Council will have a chance to meet privately with him. "I'm sure there will be representatives of local governments as well as our Congressional delegation there to support continued operation of the base," Lane said.
U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., added, "The Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station plays a vital role for Western New York and the country as a whole, and I am confident that Secretary Panetta will share that opinion after he joins my colleagues and me on Thursday."
Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Hamburg, said, "After working closely with Secretary Panetta over the past year, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to tour the Air Base with him personally. As the sole military installation in the area, the Air Reserve Station plays a vital role in protecting the security of our nation, our region, and our local community. I am looking forward to the opportunity to show the secretary the strategic importance of the Niagara Air Base."
This trip comes after a March meeting at the Pentagon where Hochul and other representatives of New York state's delegation in Congress extended a personal invitation to Panetta to visit the Air Base.
The official announcement said Panetta's visit at 10 a.m. Thursday is intended as a "thank you" message to the military and civilian employees at the base for their service to the government.
Monday's announcement of Panetta's visit came as the Niagara County Center for Economic Development issued a report that said the reasons for keeping the base open today are the same as they were in 2005, the last time it was threatened with a shutdown.
At that time, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission reported that closing the air base would cost the Pentagon money, rather than saving it.
"After an exhaustive examination of the facts, the (Realignment) commission concluded it would take over a quarter of a century before the Department of Defense would see any cost savings from closing [the base]," the report said.
The county report noted that since 2005, the federal government has built a new military training center at the base, along with a processing facility for new service members from the Buffalo area and a new firing range.
Proposals for new investment at the base include a new regional headquarters for the Border Patrol, a C-130 flght simulator, and a partnership between the Air Force and the University at Buffalo for a military research hub.
"The C-130 is the backbone of our national defense. It is a vital national security asset precisely because it is a very adaptable airframe," said County Legislator David E. Godfrey, R-Wilson. "And many of the units flying it are the reserve component -- the folks in our National Guard and Reserve. They need flying hours, but they need simulator hours too. Right now, there are no facilities to train them anywhere in the Northeast."
Panetta's visit comes at a time when Empire State Development, the state's chief economic development agency, is seeking applications from nonprofit organizations and municipalities that are trying to keep military bases open around the state. Those organizations include the Niagara Military Affairs Council which is specifically lobbying to keep the Niagara Falls base open. Lane said the Council has about 200 active members.
Successful applicants for the Empire State Development funds will receive up to $300,000 each to promote their cause.
Panetta is scheduled to offer remarks at 10 a.m. Thursday in Hangar 850 on the base. Attendance is by pre-clearance only.
Taken as a whole, the air base is the largest employer in Niagara County, with more than 2,600 military and civilian personnel working there.
Niagara County Manager Jeffrey M. Glatz said, "We stand by the most important assertion" in Monday's report by the Niagara County Center for Economic Development. "The report says, 'The close proximity to the international border including two international airports, four international highway crossings, two international rail crossings, and two major hydroelectric generating power plants, emphasizes the critical role that [the base] plays in national defense and homeland security.' To propose reductions or eliminations of missions would be shortsighted and dangerous to national security and the Western New York economy."
The base is home to the 914th Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserve and the 107th Airlift Wing of the Air National Guard. Recent Congressional legislation appears to have protected the Niagara Falls units for the government's fiscal year beginning in October, but their future beyond that is uncertain.
News Niagara Reporter Thomas J. Prohaska contributed to this report.
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