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Should Tucson look to reduce the flights at Davis-Monthan?

At a meeting held last month to discuss the future of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Mayor Bob Walkup said, "We need to figure out a way for the city and DM to live in harmony, to protect our quality of life while protecting the mission of Davis-Monthan."

A $200,000 study is now underway to look at accomplishing that goal. It will examine such things as land-use conflicts and potential loud noise problems between the 76-year-old base and the city.

The study will address specific issues including the possibility of a noise insulation program for homes around Davis-Monthan. Tucson International Airport has successfully implemented this type of project, but the military doesn't fund similar efforts.

One option the study won't consider is removal of the flight-training mission from DM. According to Deb Sydenham, of the Arizona Department of Commerce, which is coordinating the study, that possibility isn't within the jurisdiction of the state.

While it's not being considered, eliminating training flights over the city may be more attractive to some people living near the base, especially when the ultra-quiet A-10 jets which now use DM are eventually phased out.

"If the Air Force brings the F-22 or similar loud plane in here," community activist and DM neighbor Mark Mayer says, "our quality of life will be damned. Nobody will want to live in the central city if that happens."

That outlook reflects back 30 years when Phantom jets flew into Davis-Monthan. Their ear-shattering noise levels would literally shake buildings and stop classroom conversation on the UA campus.

In anticipation of that level of aircraft noise returning to Tucson, Mayer would like to see the current study include a look at removing the flight-training mission from DM. Under that scenario, some of the existing base uses would remain, such as the runway to serve the enormous airplane storage facility. The frequent training flights over the city, however, would be eliminated.

While acknowledging that future flights above his neighborhood near Reid Park may be five times as loud after the A-10 leaves, Bill Dupont still concludes of the possibility of shutting down the training mission: "The base is too valuable to Tucson."

But to replace the jobs and dollars that would be lost to the local economy if the training flights were stopped, Mayer suggests the concept of creating a multi-use facility on DM's more than 16 square miles of property.

Under different circumstances, that is what Mesa had to do more than 10 years ago when the Defense Department decided to close Williams Air Force Base. Faced with losing 3,500 jobs, state, local and private agencies banded together to secure alternative uses for the 6-square-mile facility.

According to Wayne Balmer, project manager of Mesa's Williams Gateway Area office, it took a lot of money and hard work, but the effort has succeeded. He indicates that current employment at Williams is near where it was when the base closed. Not only is the runway used as a relief freight facility for Sky Harbor Airport, but Boeing and other employers are located on the site.

In addition, the former base is becoming an educational hub for southern Phoenix, with Arizona State University and several community colleges having classrooms there.

While local officials were shocked and surprised that Williams was chosen for closure in 1991, Balmer says that after spending $120 million to improve infrastructure, Williams Gateway Airport is a success. Plus, he adds, "Ten years from now, it will be an extremely positive (economic) facility" for the area.

Even the possibility of looking at alternative uses for Davis-Monthan gives local leaders nightmares. After all, DM provides military and civilian jobs to 10,000 people, making it one of Tucson's primary employers. Its annual payroll of more than $300 million is an economic foundation that many officials would fear to even consider tinkering with.

Kendall Bert, economic development director for the city of Tucson, indicates the concept of alternative uses for DM was explored in 1991. But, he says, because the runway and tower would have to remain open to serve the airplane storage facility, there wouldn't be much left for other uses.

"There is a great deal at stake if the Air Force pulls out of Tucson," Bert says. "We'd be left with a huge hit on our economy and no non-military reuses. It's important to keep the (flight training) mission functioning and the base open."

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