Urban planners and economic development officials always point to a large-scale development, such as a mall or park, when discussing community growth generators. For Columbus and Lowndes County, they look to the skies.
They also look to the ground, considering the impact that Columbus Air Force Base has had on the region since it was established in February 1941. What began as a training facility for fighters and bombers has grown into a full-scale military installation, employing thousands and contributing millions to the region’s economic bottom line.
“We have very good relationships with the city and county governments around us, and we are definitely a driver for their economies,” says Rick “Sonic” Johnson, chief of public affairs. “We’re the No. 1 employer in the area by a scale of three – you can add the next three up, and still not reach our payroll.”
In 2007, Columbus AFB contributed about $284 million, or $750,000 a day, to the regional economy, which it defines as being within a 50-mile radius of the base. That number is expected to reach almost $321 million, or $876,000 a day, when the 2008 numbers are finalized. That breaks down to $109 million in payroll, $180 million for annual expenditures and $132 million in indirect jobs, or the trickle-down effect, Johnson says.
“We’re a driver for a lot of things in the area that affect the quality of life here,” he says. “We work with the school system, and we champion a lot of other programs, like the parks, that are good for our kids. And because of us there are five more people working at Lowe’s or Chili’s [Grill & Bar] instead of four.”
As home to the 14th Flying Training Wing, the facility trains between 300 and 350 pilots per year. The base employs a total population of 3,075, with 1,409 of those being military personnel. Those figures are likely to grow in the coming months as the base wraps up a construction program and brings new buildings online for new programs it received under the U.S. Department of Defense’s Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, program.
“The Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals Training and the T-6 training missions were moved from Moody Air Force Base to Columbus,” Johnson says. “That meant that we needed to build a new mission support group complex, which is under construction now, and we’ve also built two new gates and made other facility improvements and have put out a new child-development center for bids.”
The base spent $23 million on construction in 2008 and received another $8 million for the support-group complex late in the budgeting process, Johnson says.
But above and beyond the installation’s obvious economic impact as an employer, it reaches out into the community in other ways, both tangible and intangible, as well. There are some 6,661 military retirees in the area, most of whom served at Columbus or nearby and remained due to the quality of life. They and other base personnel spent about $6.7 million on medical care in the area last year, Johnson says, and as a group offer more than just spending to the community.
“This is why Columbus and the communities around us embrace this installation,” he says. “Aside from the economic dollars, we bring a lot of things that are hard to measure, things like personal experiences. These are people who have lived around the world, and they bring an international view of things. We’re the people that sing in the church choirs, that volunteer in the community. We are citizens in the area and enjoy being active; it’s hard to find a dollar figure for that.”