Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Map of Nellis Air Force Base
Two mayors, their areas of influence not more than 2 miles apart, are contemplating new economic realities.
Both are attempting to look at their respective operations in a new way, examining the costs and benefits of each service offered, and both are on a mission to enter into mutually beneficial agreements.
One is North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, sworn in July 1. He is in charge of resuscitating a floundering city. Lee, the son of an airman, wants to build stronger ties with nearby Nellis Air Force Base that will benefit the military and his city.
The other is Col. Barry Cornish, otherwise known as the “mayor of Nellis.” He is in charge of the installations and support on base that affect the daily lives of airmen and their families. Cornish — and other Nellis commanders — have a new mission to aggressively pursue public and private partnerships.
North Las Vegas, one of the Southern Nevada communities hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis, has been beset by budget problems ever since its tax base crumbled in the recession.
The city has had to divert money from sewer and water treatment fees to pay for police and fire services. In 2012 and again this year, the city council declared a fiscal emergency.
Nellis, meanwhile, is coming to terms with its own smaller coffers. General reductions in military spending over the past few years and recent sequestration cuts have hacked into Nellis’ budget. A $46 million cut across the Air Force earlier this year led to the cancellation of Aviation Nation, Nellis’ annual open house and air show. Various programs and training sessions at the base have been curtailed or eliminated.
At Nellis, Cornish is armed with a new directive from Washington, dubbed the P4 Initiative (public-public and private-public partnerships). Its mission: “Leveraging military installation and local community capabilities and resources to reduce operating and service costs in support of the Air Force mission.”
Lee wants North Las Vegas to be the primary “local community” in Nellis’ P4 equation. Nellis sits just outside the North Las Vegas city limits, and 32 percent of all Creech and Nellis staff live in North Las Vegas.
Lee is looking at short-term collaborations between the two entities — for example special mutual access to golf courses on base and in North Las Vegas — but he also is thinking about large-scale development and jobs.
“My big concern is this: We have a great opportunity to get the drone industry here with Creech Air Force Base and Nellis Air Force Base,” Lee said. “Fifty-five percent of North Las Vegas has not been built out yet, so this is a great place to do an industrial complex for military drones and things like that.”
Nellis and North Las Vegas have agreements to share police, rescue and fire resources, but Lee wants the relationship to be even closer. He worked on issues involving Nellis when he was a state senator and came back to thinking about the base when he was elected mayor.
“I can’t imagine our community not embracing Nellis Air Force Base,” he said. “As they grow and as they contribute to this region, North Las Vegas is the first place that they do business because it’s right outside the gates. It’s not actually in North Las Vegas, but I have co-opted it. Nellis is in North Las Vegas from now on as far as I’m concerned.”
Nellis and Creech contribute an estimated $5 billion annually to the local economy, and Lee is not the only one who wants to make sure the base stays and thrives.
“Over the years there have been long-term benefits of having the Air Force in the community,” said Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins, who is co-chairman of the civilian military council and has Nellis in his district. “A lot of these guys come back to Las Vegas to retire. They have great experience and training and after living here for some time, they chose to come back here to retire. That leads to a lot of intangible benefits of having them in the community.”
The economic impact on the community from Nellis has dwindled somewhat due to budget cuts. Cornish estimated the 2013 sequestration cut the federal money entering Las Vegas via base operations and activities by $300 million. Yet, the need for the Air Force to enter into new partnerships has increased opportunities.
A prime example of how the two entities can work together, noted by both Cornish and Lee, was the 2010 deal in which North Las Vegas built its new wastewater treatment plant on 41 acres of land leased from Nellis. The base, in turn, got $25 million from the city that went directly to construction of a 110,000-square-foot, top-of-the-line fitness center.
“That offset quite a bit of costs over the term of the lease to the city of North Las Vegas, because now they don’t have to pay someone else to treat their wastewater. And, in exchange, there was an agreement between them and us to build our state-of-the-art Warrior Fitness Center that we probably would not otherwise have been able to build because of the tight military construction dollars,” Cornish said. “I think it’s being used as an example across the Air Force of how we should look at partnerships in the future.”
Since late May, Nellis staff have been meeting with community leaders, business owners and representatives of city and county departments to vet and develop projects.
On Wednesday, the final planning meeting was conducted on the base, and several projects were given the green light, including an on-base data center, an elementary school, a second solar energy farm and fitness center programs.
The projects are still in the infant stage, and other collaborations are being considered.
Nellis partnered with SunEdison to build a 140-acre, 14-megawatt solar array on the base. The project was completed in 2007. It gave Nellis a long-term lease to buy electricity at a fixed rate. SunEdison sells renewable energy credits to NV Energy.
This time Nellis is discussing a second array that would serve as a test site for renewable energy storage.
“This will allow us to explore other areas like some research and development initiatives for long-term energy storage, which is a new growth area for both solar and hydroelectric,” Cornish said.
The Lomie Heard Elementary School at Nellis was built in 1951 as a military school but eventually was conveyed to the Clark County School District. Today the school is in need of major modernization. It was included on the list of schools for funding on the district’s proposed tax for infrastructure improvements defeated in November 2012.
“When parents are reassigned to Nellis Air Force Base, one of the first concerns they have is education,” Cornish said. “The reason is, and I think most people would agree, that education in Las Vegas is not where it needs to be.”
Cornish and Clark County School District Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky have met and discussed possibilities for improvements, but Cornish knows the school district is not flush with money and would like to invite a charter school onto the base.
“We’ve got to do something to make sure we have educational opportunities out there for them,” Lee said. “We can get the best and brightest people out here who can then help me develop North Las Vegas. If (Nellis) is where the intellect is for the Air Force, (North Las Vegas) is where the blessings will come to.”
Cornish and his staff also are exploring a partnership with a private company to build a data center on the base that would have server space for both the Air Force and the general public.
Apart from the public and private partnerships initiative, the Air Force has spent the past few years examining services it provides on base. If the service is available in the local community, the benefits of offering the service on base are examined. Both a bowling alley and a movie theater on the base have been shuttered in the last year.
“There are a lot of things the United States Air Force does extremely well: Flying airplanes, fixing airplanes, delivering combat power for America is what we’re all about,” Cornish said. “Sometimes we are not the very best at the business of running restaurants, but there’s a bunch of people in this town who are.”
Base personnel also have looked at out-of-the-ordinary ways to improve service on base. At Nellis there is a club with a restaurant, bar and meeting area for conventions. It is only open three days a week. Cornish is in discussions with the College of Southern Nevada, which needs more training space for its culinary students, to somehow partner in the club. The students could work and train at the Nellis club, allowing them to expand their hands-on hours and get the opportunities they need.
“That’s an example of trying to look at innovative solutions to use the resources we have and a need that exists in the local population to try and bring those together,” Cornish said. “This is the new reality and we’ll be looking for more of those types of opportunities.”