Politics & Government

Leaders in Houston worry about BRAC, education

PERRY -- When community leaders came together Wednesday, it was only natural that they focused on Robins Air Force Base, Houston County’s largest employer.

Panelists at the Perry Area Chamber of Commerce’s State of the Community luncheon discussed more immediate threats to the base, such as a Base Realignment and Closure Commission process and longer-term challenges, such as developing an education system that can supply the scientists and engineers that Robins needs.

Charlie Stenner, a retired lieutenant general who leads the 21st Century Partnership, said his organization is studying how the last BRAC process evaluated Robins. That information, combined with 15 more recent studies, can give a good picture of how to make the base more competitive.

“Base Realignment and Closure is not an ‘if,’ in my opinion,” Stenner said. “It is ‘when.’”

Col. Chris Hill, the installation commander at Robins Air Force Base, said the base has been working this year to increase internships and job co-ops, while working with schools and universities to emphasize science, technology, engineering and math fields. The search for more trained workers begins with getting primary school students interested in those fields, Hill said.

“We believe this is good not only inside the (base) fence but outside the fence,” he said.

Hill also talked about improving relationships with the base’s unions. Efforts to resolve conflicts, improve safety training and update an agreement with a local union is helping the relationships, which can help the base become more productive.

“We’re encouraged. And I think it’s important to be encouraged,” Hill said in Wednesday’s discussion at the Houston County Board of Education Annex. “I also think it’s important that we’ve got to produce, and we understand that we’ve got to yield a result, an output. It’s all fine and dandy if we’re friends, but we’re really talking about making sure the effectiveness of Robins Air Force Base guarantees the future of what for many of our employees is a family business. We understand the vitality and the importance of Robins to this community.”

Houston County Commission Chairman Tommy Stalnaker said the greatest challenge to Houston County -- and all of Middle Georgia -- is doing everything possible to protect Robins Air Force Base.

Angie Gheesling, executive director of the Houston County Development Authority, said companies considering moving to the county are looking for training in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. She said they tell her, “Don’t tell me what you’re preparing them for. Tell me what they can do now.”

Separately, Perry Mayor Jimmy Faircloth discussed his city’s interest in shifting some burdens from property taxes to fees. The city has had a stormwater fee and this year launched a fire fee, which is covering costs of the fire department’s massive expansion.

Houston County school Superintendent Mark Scott said the system’s sales-tax-fueled construction projects remain on track and will soon lead to a renovation at Houston County High School.

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.