Like a decorated aviator turning in his flight suit after a lifetime of military service, the former Williams Air Force Base has faced difficulties adjusting to civilian life.
But rather than growing old and weary, the decommissioned base has undergone a rebirth of sorts, say the East Valley visionaries responsible for creating what they now call the Williams Gateway Community.
Still, it has taken a decade and a $150-million investment for the mixed-use community to rival its uniformed predecessor in terms of jobs, education and economic stimuli.
Williams Gateway Airport, the community’s centerpiece, remains stalled in its mission to become a Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport satellite operation for passenger travel. However, it has fared much better as a training ground for aviators, and the facilities needed to handle heavy cargo traffic have just been completed.
The community’s greatest civilian success thus far has been Arizona State University East, the aviation, technology and agribusiness-focused satellite campus that has tripled enrollment in the past four years despite a shoestring budget.
The Williams economic engine is still warming up, with 40 companies, schools and other organizations employing just over 3,000 on the former base. However, officials say a coming freeway, economic recovery and continued area growth could bring in as many as 100,000 new jobs in the next 20 years.
A slow start
Tuesday will mark the 10th year since the Air Force packed up its forces and equipment to head off into the wild blue yonder. At that time, the base had about 2,500 military personnel and 1,000 civilian employees.
Beginning in 1991, military leaders entertained several bids for the soon-to-be empty base, but in the end they were swayed by an ambitious proposal presented in 1992 by community leaders such as then-Gov. Fife Symington, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Mesa Mayor Willie Wong and Arizona State University College of Engineering dean Charles Backus.
Their grand idea was to convert Williams into a regional passenger airport, higher education center and business park for the south East Valley. The Williams Gateway Community, to be developed in three phases over about 20 years, was to cost an estimated $78.5 million in capital expenses and $42.3 million in operating costs, according to the "Williams AFB Economic Reuse Plan" proposal, published in August 1992.
The study predicted that Williams would show its first annual profit in the second year of operation.
The actual capital costs have been closer to $150 million, and Williams has yet to turn a profit after 10 years of operation.
The reuse planners did not anticipate how much time and money it would take to rebuild the Air Force’s aging and inadequate infrastructure, said Williams Gateway economic area project manager Wayne Balmer.
"There’s no way we could have known, really," he said.
Buildings, roads, sewer systems, communication lines and many other elements had to be upgraded or replaced before the former base would be suitable for civilian use — a process that took about seven years to finish, Balmer said.
"It’s really only been a complete airport for two or three years," he said.
Education heads east
Williams’ civilian education component got off to a quicker start. A joint proposal between ASU, the Higley Unified School District, Chandler-Gilbert and Mesa community colleges was approved in 1995. Classes began in the fall of 1996, said Charles Backus, ASU East’s provost and one of the original reuse planners.
The concept was an "educational mall," Backus said, where students could attend any grade from kindergarten through doctoral programs. To guarantee an immediate enrollment of 1,000 students, ASU opted to relocate two colleges from its main campus rather than creating ASU East as a local branch campus with a full array of classes.
Students enrolled in the aviation and agribusiness schools had no choice but to enroll on the new campus, he said.
Through a unique arrangement with the Maricopa Community College District, ASU East’s students may take lower-level classes at the community colleges on the Williams campus. The schools even share a bookstore, library and computer lab.
The satellite campus model — designed not to repeat the slow-building ASU West’s branch approach — has been a success, he said. Enrollment has increased to 3,550 in 2003, despite a constant struggle to cover operating expenses. The community colleges, which Backus said are typically better funded, have more than 1,500 students enrolled.
Backus said the Arizona Legislature has created financial difficulties for ASU East by omitting from its annual budget a bonus for increased enrollment, which other state schools receive. As a result, ASU has been forced to subsidize ASU East’s operating budget for six of the past seven years.
Officials from ASU’s three campuses are lobbying the state to combine all of their budgets into one, which Backus said would benefit ASU East tremendously.
"It’s not that they (ASU main and west) are fat, but we’re just starving," he said.
The airpark analogy
To assess Williams’ progress as a business park and predict what the future may hold, Scottsdale principal planner Don Hadder suggested some parallels and a history of what is now the north East Valley’s top employment center.
The Scottsdale Airpark began business development activities in 1967, two years after it was donated to the city. Since then it has grown to contain about 3,000 businesses and employ 35,000 to 40,000 workers.
But the airpark’s success didn’t happen overnight, he said. In fact, its growth was fairly slow until Loop 101 was extended north to Greenway Parkway.
The Santan Freeway stretch of L oop 202 is expected to reach Williams Gateway in about two years, but Hadder said not to expect a development boom until the new road is in place.
"The people making those business decisions really prefer a bird in the hand," he said.
Balmer said although Williams Gateway is at the edge of the south East Valley, within 20 years it will be surrounded by a thriving residential community. A Maricopa Association of Governments study released last month predicts the population within a 30-minute drive from Williams Gateway will top 1.25 million by 2020.
Hadder said one of the business park’s purposes was to create a buffer between airport noise and area residents. Balmer also noted the importance of a buffer zone, noting that at least one developer is attempting to develop a neighborhood in an area that he said is too close to Williams.
"One of the things that will kill it will be too many houses in the flight path," he said.
In addition to easy access, Hadder said other success factors include high aesthetic and cleanliness standards, and nearby amenities such as restaurants, hotels and retail stores.
Balmer said he and others are striving to put all the elements in place to make the Williams Gateway Community a success.
"We’ve invested $150 million of the public’s money in the idea that we can make this work," he said.