Border Patrol to the rescue for Falls air base?

February 16th, 2012

By Mark ScheerNiagara Gazette
NIAGARA FALLS — Western New York’s congressional delegation wants the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection to build a new border patrol facility at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.

In a joint statement issued Wednesday, Democratic U.S. senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and U.S. Reps Louise Slaughter, Brian Higgins and Kathy Hocul announced that they have asked the nation’s top homeland and border security officials to clear the way for a new border patrol operation to be built at the airbase to replace an existing facility on Lafayette Avenue in Niagara Falls.

The move comes as elected officials and a citizens-action group in Niagara County work to find ways to keep the base relevant amid plans to restructure and downsize the nation’s military operations.

“As Customs and Border Protection considers sites for a new border patrol station, Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station must be at the top of their list,” Schumer said. “It is clear that the existing border patrol station can no longer accommodate the needs of its border agents, and a new station at NFARS would provide the resources, training facilities, and space necessary to ensure that our border patrol can continue doing top-notch work protecting our northern border. What’s more, with Department of Defense budget cuts looming, the construction of this station would also help keep the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station as a critical player in both our national security and Western New York’s economy.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been looking for alternative sites for its facility in Niagara Falls for years. In 2010, officials from the agency pursued plans to move the local operation to a site on Upper Mountain Road in the Town of Lewiston. The proposed facility, which was to include a new 24,994-square-foot office building, a secure indoor garage, a bus sallyport, 60 outdoor parking spaces and a helipad, never got off the drawing board. Amid concerns raised by town residents who feared the facility would not be a good fit for the neighborhood, the town’s zoning board rejected a request for a change in zoning that would have allowed the new station to be built.  

In a joint letter delivered to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner David Aguilar, members of the Western New York delegation argued that the community would be better served by building the border patrol facility at the airbase. The letter encourages Napolitano and Aguilar to find funds in their fiscal year 2012 budget to allow the proposed construction project to move forward.

“Locating the new border patrol station at the Niagara Air Base is the smart thing to do, which is why I have been pressing DHS to do so for years,” Slaughter said. “It is an efficient use of federal resources co-locating facilities from two agencies and it takes advantage of the incredible workforce of Niagara County and Western New York.”

The request comes at a time when supporters of the local airbase are receiving mixed signals from the Pentagon as to the future direction of the facility. Representatives from the Niagara Military Affairs Council, the lead local advocacy group for the base, reacted favorably this week to word from Washington, D.C. of plans to invest $28.1 million to develop a new cargo plane simulator at the Falls Air Reserve Station. The reaction was tempered by news that the Air Force may cut the Air Guard’s ties to Niagara, thus leaving the 107th Airlift Wing — a unit that represents more than 800 jobs — without a mission.

“For the overall picture it’s good,” said NIMAC Chairman Merrell Lane, referring to Wednesday’s announcement about possible plans for a new border patrol facility and the earlier news concerning the flight simulator project. “But, we are all very cautious about what’s going to happen with the 107th.”

The airbase is home to both the 107th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard and 914th Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserve. With more than 3,000 full- and part-time employees and an $88 million payroll, the reserve station is Niagara County’s largest employer. The operation’s future came into question in January when the Defense Department announced plans to scale back its budget for the next decade. The announcement included plans for the Air Force to retire 65 C-130 cargo planes like those housed at the Falls facility.

NIMAC helped keep the Air Reserve Station off a closure list back in 2005 and is continuing to work with local, state and federal officials as well as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. in an effort to convince the Defense Department to maintain the Falls facility.

Lane said the proposed flight simulator project could bring as many as 400 members of C-130 cargo crews from across the northeast to the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station each year and would help to solidify the base as a military installation. He called the air reserve station a “logical spot” for the new border patrol facility and said it too could help to preserve the future of the airbase.

“Having the Congressional delegation push for it is a big plus,” Lane said.

The new border patrol station would provide accommodations for 50 border protection agents and could be modified to accommodate up to 75 agents as well as offering additional space for training, administration, vehicle maintenance and other activities to the airbase, federal lawmakers said.

“Bringing a Customs and Border Patrol mission to Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station would enable the agency to leverage the major assets we have right on site, including the air field, firing range, and the medical clinic,” said Gillibrand, who serves on the Senate’s Armed Services Committee. “This is a highly cost-effective method that would give Customs and Border Patrol access to these resources it wouldn’t otherwise have — and it’s a step we should take to keep this economic engine for Western New York.”

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