Leader Blues

Friday, October 31, 2008

TOP STORY > >Air Force grateful for city’s $5M gift

Leader Staff writer

Five years ago the dream of a new education center to serve both Little Rock Air Force Base and the local community was conceived. Friday, the city of Jacksonville presented a gift of $5 million to the Air Force, to help that dream become a reality.

Mayor Tommy Swaim presented an oversized check symbolic of the gift at the LRAFB Community Council meeting at the base.

Gen. Arthur J. Lichte, Air Mobility Command commander, accepted the donation on behalf of the Air Force, saying, “It will be put to good use.”

The Air Force will pay the remainder of the $14.8 million project in front of the air base.

Speaking of the city of Jacksonville, Lichte said, “You have a tremendous community, and it is very much respected throughout the Air Force. I want you to know what a great community this is – it has great communityspirit and spirit of friendship. You should be very proud of your community.”

Brig. Gen. Rowayne A. Schatz, 19th Airlift Wing commander, called the community’s level of support “unprecedented.”

“This is a big event; we are excited and honored. What a fantastic concept – a local community teaming with a major Air Force installation,” Schatz said.

Swaim said that some people have asked him why the city is giving away $5 million. He explained, “We are not giving away $5 million. We are investing $5 million in Little Rock Air Force Base, in the city of Jacksonville, and the state of Arkansas. We believe it will come back to us, pressed down, shaken together and running over.”

The $5 million, one of the largest single donations ever made to the Air Force, comes from a penny sales tax approved by Jacksonville voters five years ago. Because of the unique nature of the gift – a city donating such a huge sum to a military installation – the project was put on hold until the Air Force established a legal mechanism for the ransfer of the funds.

Meanwhile, the $5 million sat in a vault at a local bank. Finally, last month, the Air Force gave its approval to proceed.
Another $9.8 million needed to build the center comes from the Air Force. U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder proposed legislation in
Congress for the allocation, which was recently approved and signed by President Bush.

Swaim thanked Snyder for his faith in the concept from the start and his diligence in seeing the project through.

Snyder commended all the work by the city, Swaim and others to raise the funds.

“This is really an impressive kind of thing,” Snyder said. “I feel so much respect and admiration for the city of Jacksonville, Mayor Swaim. This really is an unusual situation and took a lot of work, to get this on the ballot, to get it passed, then to collect the money, which is now sitting in Larry Wilson’s bank,” he said with a chuckle. “Thank you, Mayor Swaim, the city of Jacksonville, and our men and women in uniform.”

Actually, the funds have been transferred to the military, allowing for the construction of the college campus in a few months.

The education center will provide classroom space for a wide variety of college-level programs, relieving the cramped quarters of the existing base education center. Airman, their families and civilians will be able to attend classes there.

Community advocates of the center have long seen it as a way to bring college education offerings to Jacksonville and the surrounding area.

The facility is to be located just outside the perimeter of the base, easing attendance by civilians. It will be adjacent to the base flag plaza at Vandenberg Boulevard and John Harden Drive.

Award of the construction contract may come in a few months. Completion of the project is tentatively scheduled for September 2010, according to James McKinnie, chief of the 19th Civil Engineering Squadron.

The original design was for an 81,500-square-foot building, large enough to close the existing education center.

While the project was on hold, rising prices for steel, asphalt, concrete and petroleum forced a downsizing of the building footprint. Plans are in flux, but the capacity will be around 50,000 square feet.

Costs will also go up because of the extra site work to stabilize expansive soils at the building site, which tests determined to be poor quality for construction.

Kinnie described the center as a “world-class learning environment” and “a win-win situation” for the air base and community.

Capacity in the new center’s classrooms and computer and science labs is now estimated at around 530 students. However, the smaller building size might mean that administrative offices likely will remain at the existing educational center, McKinnie said.

Cromwell Architects and Garver Engineers are designing the center, which meets Air Force standards for distance learning, video teleconferencing, and seminar needs. The building and landscaping, which will preserve as many trees as possible, will also meet the highest environmental standards, nearly to the “silver” level.

The unusual gift was not the first gift from the city of Jacksonville to the Air Force. In 1951, local residents raised the money necessary to buy the land to build the base.

“The citizens of Jacksonville helped start the base by raising $1 million to purchase the land,” Schatz said.

“Now they’re handing us a $5 million check to build the joint education center. The base is in need of a new educational facility for our airman and their families to further their education. Like always, our community partners are ready to support the men and women who defend our nation day in and day out.”

Senior writer John Hofheimer and Garrick Feldman of The Leader contributed to this report.