From the Cold War to Eternity
Story and photos by Adam Faubert
As a child, Plattsburgh Air Force Base (PAFB) always held a certain mystique for me. My most vivid memories come from its annual basketball tournament. For five years, my family regularly made the twenty mile drive south to Plattsburgh, the “big city.” Traveling through the city was no normal affair; it was an adventure. Of all the trips though, the most memorable is that of 1995, the year the base closed.
Taking Route 9, we were always greeted by the overpass placard on the Georgia-Pacific plant which dominates the road and proudly displayed, “Welcome to Plattsburgh.” We passed by the residential areas, quaint Victorian-era houses shared streets with modern era dwellings of baby boomers, and those of the X generation. Continuing south on Route 9, past city hall and monuments to local war heroes, Plattsburgh’s downtown was like that of any other small city. Small mom and pop stores neighbored with insurance agencies, banks, and furniture stores; all proudly displayed their “PAFB # 1” posters, a show of local support for the base that residents desperately wanted to remain.
At the time, that tournament was the pinnacle of my accomplishments: playing basketball in front of a full capacity crowd of two hundred spectators! This was on an army base with guards, machine guns, and fighter jets too! To my twelve-year-old self, this was one of the coolest moments I could have ever imagined. Could life be any better than this? My youthful ignorance never grasped the larger scale of things, never realizing that, as my 9th grade social studies frequently mentioned, a Soviet submarine sitting off the coast of Massachusetts had a nuclear payload aimed directly at Plattsburgh. If launched, we would have roughly 45 minutes to live.
The history of the actual base originates in 1814 when, realizing yet again the importance of the region, 13,000 British regulars marched south from Montreal to take control of Lake Champlain and effectively cut New England off from the rest of the nation. Assisted by a vastly superior navy, British forces launched their assault on Plattsburgh on the morning of September 11, 1814. Three crudely-built earthen forts—Fort Brown, Fort Scott, and Fort Moreau—were the key to defending Plattsburgh. Consisting of three buildings and housing 12 cannons, according to the New York State Military Museum, Fort Moreau stood where the Plattsburgh Army Barracks, the predecessor to the airbase, now stand. Fortunately the British were routed, in part to the naval battle won by Lieutenant Thomas MacDonough, who a monument now stands for on the banks of the Saranac.
In 1954, the Army gave the land to the Air Force, which drew up plans for a massive installation that would be a cornerstone of the U.S. Strategic Air Command, the deterrent to the Soviet nuclear threat. Two years later, construction was completed on what locals referred to as the “New Base.” In addition to a state-of-the-art flight line, and home of the 380th Bombardment Wing, Plattsburgh now began to serve as a support base for several missile silos in surrounding towns like Champlain and Mooers in New York, and Alburg in Vermont. These were small towns with family maple syrup businesses, where cows rivaled the human population, where local heroes were the seven Gregoire brothers who had all gone off to war and all made it back home safely. In the middle of all that was PAFB, on which the North Country pinned its economic future.
The new airbase brought approximately 5,000 new residents to the North Country. It was a renaissance for the area, for the men who served there, and their families. “It was one of the best facilities that the Air Force had to offer,” according to Major Louis Davis (Ret.), who twice served at PAFB—once as a grunt returning from Vietnam and again in 1993 as a squadron commander, where he would retire a year later. Some remember playing baseball next to the old barracks by the lake and basketball in the gym. Others watching 2 FB-111 take off every night around 9 o'clock from their bedroom windows. Many former servicemen have fond memories of Nitzi’s and the pike fishing in the area. Still, others grew to love not just the base but the area as well, “The area is beautiful which prompted us to buy l60 acres in Keeseville in 1972, which we still own,” said Becky Wise, who lived on the base. “It still remains a wonderful memory with wonderful people and a base that tried its best to provide for its people.”
Fairy-tales never last forever though, and with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, the world’s political climate changed. With no imminent threat from the Soviet bloc nations, such a large military force was obsolete. Starting in 1990, the Base Realignment and Closure Act weeded through America’s military installations. In 1993, the Closure Commission voted to close PAFB despite an outcry of opposition from the local community. On September 25, 1995, a typically cold fall North Country day, the base officially closed. There was a small ceremony, attended by Congressman John McHugh and various air force personnel that seemed like a formality more than anything else. An unfitting end for a base that saw action against the British Empire, trained heroes of WWII, and flew Lake Placid’s miracle hockey team to the White House.
If the impact of losing the air base wasn’t crushing enough, the economic repercussions certainly were. According to Sue Matton, Vice President for Economic Development for the North Country Chamber of Commerce, “The economic impact of the base was about 5% [of Plattsburgh’s economy] during the 80s and 90s.” The impact would have been worse were it not for the self-sufficiency of the base. It featured its own grocery store, theatre, gas station, and golf course. “The [businesses] most affected were moving companies, car dealerships and retail located near the base.”
While the impact seemed low on paper, the city looked much worse than the numbers would have you believe. The once-vibrant downtown area saw stores close and vacant lots sprung up all over the city. Skyway Plaza, the local shopping center adjacent to the base, sat almost derelict, its Grand Union boarded up. One of the first signs of local economic success, the Champlain Centres South shopping mall sat virtually empty. That mall carries with it many of my childhood memories: It’s where I learned humility when my mother used a check for a $5 purchase and I was too embarrassed to stand near her. It’s where I used to visit my dad when he worked at Montgomery Ward, when he turned on the Super Nintendo on the display TV’s so I could play for hours on end. It’s where I didn’t even know Mickey’s Diner served food; I only went for the mint chocolate chip ice cream. It’s where the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles machine ate so many of my quarters in the arcade.
Ten years later, the base that awestruck me so long ago seems quaint. The guard house at the main entrance no longer stands. No more pock-marked new recruits pelting you with questions about who you are and where you’re going. The chain-link fences that secured the base from the rest of the world are gone. The once vibrant color of the red brick walls has been covered by vines and plant overgrowth. The gymnasium, once an icon, now sits like any other public building. Where once I triumphed on a team of champions, where military jocks relieved a days stress on the court, middle-aged men play games of one-on-one. The air seems stale and old, like the Pride of the Adirondacks that sits as a monument to an era gone by. As old ladies circle the gymnasium track on the second level, I can still picture our screaming fans chanting, “Lets go St. Mary’s lets go.” I can’t help but be saddened at the loss of the base, but where I see disappointment, the city sees promise.
In the wake of the base closure, the Plattsburgh Airbase Redevelopment Corporation (PARC) was formed. Its mission is to, “Work together to develop new jobs and new opportunities for the social and economic well-being of the Plattsburgh region, and do so in a financially and environmentally sound manner.” In 2000, PARC announced that it had successfully contracted 52 tenants for the former base and attracted approximately 1,000 employees to Plattsburgh. Today, some would say that they have already succeeded in countering the base closure, despite having some undeveloped land. This is because Site Selection Magazine has consistently featured Plattsburgh in the magazine’s list of "America's Top 100 Small Towns for Corporate Facilities." In 2005 Plattsburgh ranked fourth on the list, dropping two spots the second place ranking in 2004.
Bombardier isn’t the only company making tracks either; Pratt & Whitney is also a success story. Constructed in 2000, the 165,000 square foot P&W hangar employs dozens of workers and serves as a testing area for their PW6000 engine. This company utilizes what some consider to be the greatest asset of Plattsburgh, the flight line runway, which served as one of a few emergency landing locations for the U.S. Space Shuttle. Seeing the potential of such an asset, Clinton County entered bidding on an Airbus contract in late February of 2005. The contract would bring one of the largest international aircraft manufacturers to the doorstep of Plattsburgh.
All these businesses have led to a second renaissance in Plattsburgh, this is more apparent than anywhere in the once-dilapidated Skyway Plaza. Where the old Grand Union once stood, the locally owned Yandos Big M now rests. Flower shops, hardware stores, and auto-parts retailers now bustle with business.
Across the street, where the red brick buildings of the base stand, looks better than ever with a recently-completed renovation which removed the old chain-link fences from the base and replaced them with new sidewalks, a freshly-paved road and a two mile bike patch which weaves through the base overlooking the tranquil waters of Lake Champlain.
The old mall, where my father worked, where I ate ice cream, where I spent countless numbers of quarters was torn down years ago. It was forced to change, much like the base itself. The piles of rubble and decrepit pavement gave way to fresh asphalt and new businesses. A new Price Chopper, Lowe’s, Applebee’s, Petco, and Rent-A-Center have joined K-Mart and Friendlies, the last two holdouts of the old shopping center.
In a lot of ways, I’d say I’m glad that the base I so admired as a child is gone. It was a relic of a time long past, where two nations bickered back and forth while planning the end of the world. The use of PAFB would only have grown if the world became more unstable, closer to the brink of annihilation.
From its demise, Plattsburgh has seen a resurgence of its economy and a growth in its identity. Ten years ago I would have said that closing the base was one of the worst things that could happen to the area. Now I would say the worst thing for Plattsburgh would be for it to come back.
Changing military landscape:
Plattsburgh Air Force Base wasn't the only base to be closed in the 1993 Base Closure and Realignment Act. Dozens of other bases were closed to save the government money. These bases include, but are not limited to:
Griffiss Air Force Base, New York
Newar Air Force Base, Ohio
Homestead Air Force Base, Florida
Naval Air Station Dallas, Texas
Naval Air Station Memphis, Tennessee
Naval Training Center San Diego, California
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