Small Group Advocates for a Big Air Force Base

WARNER ROBINS -- In a small office hidden away in an office park off South Davis Drive, a few people do some of the most important work in Middle Georgia.

The office is the headquarters of the 21st Century Partnership, and its mission is to protect the 23,000 jobs at Robins Air Force Base.

Most business and government leaders know all about what they do, and many are directly involved. But when the group's president, retired Lt. Gen. Charles Stenner, tells someone like his barber or mechanic what he does, he gets a different response.

They think he is in the real estate business, he said, referring to a certain company with a similar name.

Here's how he described what the partnership does:

"We don't control anything to the point that we can say 'It should be done this way,' but I believe we can and we should advocate for the base," he said.

Stenner and Chrissy Miner, the operations chief, are the only two full-time employees. The group has a few part-timers and several volunteers.

It was formed in 1993 after Robins, along with the Air Force's other four aircraft maintenance depots, was put on a list to be considered for closure. After a massive effort led by the partnership, Robins was ultimately spared when the final closure list was approved.

The next Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) came in 2005, and Robins benefitted from that one. Another may be coming in the next three or four years.

But with or without a BRAC, the partnership has a continuing mission to protect the jobs at Robins and to recruit more missions to help the base expand. One example of that was when the Air Force decided to cut a combat communications group. It was originally going to cut 5th Combat Communications Group at Robins. After the partnership got involved, the Air Force ultimately cut the communications group at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. That saved about 500 jobs and one of the base's highest profile units.

Stenner said one of the challenges he faces is a belief among many people -- especially those who don't know much about how the military operates -- that the jobs at Robins will always be there.

"I believe that to be a problem," he said. "I think there is a, 'We've always been here, we will always be here.' If you look at the bases that closed (in previous BRACs), there was probably quite a bit of that at those locations."

One way the partnership has been trying to get its message out is with billboards and advertising. Miner said the awareness campaign is important because of the large numbers of people who move into and out of the area regularly due to the base.

"It's a subtle reminder every day that this base is here and we are here with our eye on the ball," Miner said.

In addition to being the economic heart of Middle Georgia, Robins is the largest single-site employer in the state. The largest unit on the base is the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex, which performs overhaul maintenance the C-130, C-5, F-15 and C-17 aircraft. All of those planes are vital to the ability of the U.S. to deploy military power.

But the base has many other missions as well, including the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, which provides battlefield surveillance and has been heavily used in the Global War on Terror. It also has a Marine attack helicopter squadron.

All total, Robins employs about 6,000 military members, 15,000 federal civilians, and about 2,000 people who work for businesses with Department of Defense contracts. The base is estimated to have a $2.7 billion economic impact annually, and 74 of the 159 counties in Georgia have residents who are employed at the base.

It's not hard to figure out why the partnership's work is considered so important. The group is funded by donations from businesses, governing bodies and individuals in the region. The base has struggled with some key issues in recent years, including the time it takes to complete work on aircraft and relations between labor and management. But Stenner said he is feeling good about how the base will stand if there is a BRAC coming.

"I am very impressed with the leadership of the base and the dedication they have with the production," he said. "The numbers are trending up."

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Air Force Military Bases