Twenty years ago, an event that many believed signaled the death knell for the Plattsburgh region occurred. The Plattsburgh Air Force Base was officially closed and decommissioned at the end of September 1995. WAMC’s North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley looks back.
September 29th, 1995 was a day of solemn, sad ceremony as flags were lowered and 380th Air Refueling Wing commander Colonel Robert Dawson bid farewell. "Today we are closing a significant chapter in the history of Plattsburgh, NY…For the men and women of the 380th Air Refueling Wing, your mission is complete. Well done, well done."
The closure was bittersweet and many were angry, including then-Congressman John McHugh. “For more than 200 years this place has served the defense of our great nation. As the longest continuously operated military facility anywhere in America, Plattsburgh has always served this country. Along with our pain is anger, anger born in the fact that what has happened here is wrong. Wrong for the Air Force, wrong for the taxpayers of this nation, and wrong to the great people at Plattsburgh who have for so long served this place and this nation so well."
Then-Mayor Clyde Rabideau recalls a busy, anxious time. “It was like losing a member of our family and we went through the entire grief process from denial to anger and through all the other steps until finally acceptance.”
Former Congressman Bill Owens, who succeeded McHugh, came to Plattsburgh because he was stationed at the base and was at the closing ceremony. “It was almost a sense of disbelief that this was occurring. For the community this was the final straw. They had seen the troops departing, the families departing. They had seen the slowdown in the economy that resulted from that. So I think that for most people this was the dramatic defining moment.”
The closure process had actually begun two years earlier when the Base Realignment and Closure Commission shocked not only the Plattsburgh area, but many in the military, when it voted to close the base. Current Peru Town Supervisor Peter Glushko is a retired Lieutenant Colonel who read the base history during the closure ceremony. He recalls that the base had initially been slated for expansion, not closure. “We were actually still working on the expansion up until the day they made the announcement. The announcement caught us completely by surprise. It wasn’t in our minds in any way justified. It was a political decision and it was frustrating. It’s just very frustrating and you’re powerless to stop it. There were a lot of hostile feelings about that. The space on that base was unbelievable. It was so suited for what needed to be done with an air mobility wing and it was just taken away from us with a political decision.”
As the military left, the community faced the uncertainty and challenge of redeveloping the 5,000-acre property. In a 1993 interview, Interim Transition Director Colonel Arthur Packard said the conversion to civilian use could take decades. “Well it’s a long and involved process and although it will be done faster than it has been done in the past it is President Clinton’s idea and hope to do this faster. Speed is not necessarily the goal, but ease is the goal and making it happen as easily as possible so that the community gets the best use that they can as quickly as they can out of the base facilities.”
Redevelopment was predicted to take more than 25 years. Twenty years later, only six parcels on 33 and a half acres remain and 99 percent of the base has been redeveloped. Plattsburgh North Country Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Garry Douglas: “It was certainly daunting but it was all the more so in those very early days because it was so unexpected. In early ’93 I remember sitting in the Mayor’s office and we got the official news that Plattsburgh was to receive the new air mobility command which would double the military presence here. Suddenly we were on this upward roller coaster. Then cynically we got pulled into the list and then when that BRACC decision was made we were sitting in the mayor’s office once again and it was 8-1 to close Plattsburgh Air Force Base. So the reuse effort came off that incredibly unexpected roller coaster ride. Where some bases had some lead up to the fact that they had been targeted for closure, we were targeted to double.”
But time and successful redevelopment have not eased the bitterness or sense of betrayal over the closure of the base. Looking back, Owens says the economy is better but the community has lost a critical element. “I think economically we are probably better off. I think as a community from the point of view of the diversity, I think we’ve lost that. We did recover, I think, economically and continue to recover. So I think in that sense that was less problematic to me than the loss of the people.”
The Plattsburgh Air Force Base Museum will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the closure at 5 p.m. September 30th. The American flag that flew during the original closure ceremony will fly and will once again be ceremonially lowered.