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But at the same time city leaders "had the 'uh-oh!' moment, they also had the 'aha!' moment," recalls Kirk Watson, a lawyer and then community leader who later became Austin's mayor. As luck would have it, Austin was in the market for a new airport to replace the 63-year-old one the city had long outgrown. Bergstrom, with its 12,250-ft. runway, on which giant B-52 bombers could land, was ideal for the jumbo jets that carry the international air-cargo traffic Austin wanted to attract. So the city seized the opportunity, wading through mounds of federal red tape to have the base transferred to it and persuading reluctant airlines to relocate to a facility that would need extensive renovation for commercial traffic. A $400 million local bond referendum was passed to convert the base into a commercial airport, and federal and state money came in to build highways feeding into the facility.
Eight years later, city officials proudly stood on the tarmac of the new Austin-Bergstrom International Airport as Air Force One taxied up with Bill Clinton inside as one of the first arrivals. The terminal has special touches: Amy's Ice Cream and the Salt Lick Barbecue Restaurant serve local delicacies, and a stage in the concourse offers live music. The airport brings in $1.8 billion annually and has created 35,700 new jobs. Bruce Todd, who was mayor in 1991, regrets the time the city initially wasted trying to fight the base closing. His advice to mayors facing what he did: "Leave the past behind" and "visualize the future."
THE LOWRY SHOWCASE
The picture in Denver and its eastern suburb of Aurora on Sept. 30, 1994, the day the flag was lowered for the last time at Lowry Air Force Base, was typical of what many communities see when their military facilities close. "We had a thousand empty buildings," recalls Tom Markham, executive director of the Lowry Redevelopment Authority. "We had abandoned runways. We had utilities that were old and in the wrong place." The pain of losing 7,500 civilian jobs at Lowry, where the Air Force had a technical training center, was compounded five years later by the closing of nearby Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center, which had 12,000 employees. Those two shutdowns, combined with the closing of the city-owned Stapleton Airport, left heavily urban northeastern Denver and suburban Aurora with 11 sq. mi. of land in desperate need of recycling.
Rebuilding was not easy. The Air Force was slow to turn over its property, and the environmental cleanup proved time consuming. But today Denver and Aurora proudly call that land Redevelopment Triangle. The two cities are 80% of the way toward their goal of creating 10,000 jobs there and filling the area with 4,500 homes and apartments, plus 2 million square feet of offices, retail stores and restaurants worth $1.3 billion.