Hundreds of northern Utah residents feted visiting staff members of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission Thursday and Friday in a show of support for Hill Air Force Base and Defense Depot Ogden.
Both installations are possible candidates for closure or realignment in the 1995 round of military base closings.Legally, the four visiting staff members, including the director, David Lyles, have no decisionmaking power. They will merely give support to the as-yet-to-be-named commissioners.
But Utah officials say in practice the staff will influence the decision by how they condense and present the astronomical amount of information commissioners need to make the decision.
So Hill supporters jumped at the chance, however small it might be, to sway the staff during their visit.
"You have seen how people in this community are clearly committed to supporting this military installation," Gov. Mike Leavitt told the staff members during a public forum Friday attended by more than 700 people. "We don't have a higher priority for economic development."
The staff members, who officially were in town only to educate citizens on the base closure process, were nevertheless treated like conquering heroes. They were wined and dined Thursday night (Mexican food) and attended a rehearsal of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They rested their heads on Salt Lake Hilton Hotel pillows.
Friday morning they were joined by Utah GOP Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett and Rep. Jim Hansen and were given a police escort from Salt Lake City to Ogden through several Davis County communities where elementary and high school students lined the route waving banners, flags and signs saying "We Love Hill AFB and DDO."
"They're real impressed right now," said Vicki McCall, chairwoman of Hill/DDO '95, a community group spearheading the effort to save Hill. "They didn't get anything in San Diego in the way of press coverage or anything."
The staff members had come to Utah directly from a similar visit in California.
At the Ogden Park Hotel the staff ate brunch with 40 dignitaries and were the guests of honor at the public forum where Leavitt and Lyles spoke.
The forum's standing-room-only crowd was enthusiastically supportive of Hill, except one heckler who referred to Hill as "a big pig" and the military in general as "a bigger pig."
"I think we accomplished what we wanted to except for that one guy," said Rick Mayfield, director of the Utah Division of Business and Economic Development. "But hey, this is America. People can say what they want."
Throughout the visit, Lyles refused repeated requests to speculate on Hill's chances.
"The commission is the one to make that decision," he said in the heavy accent of his native South Carolina. "I tell you, if I had a nickel for every rumor that I've heard between the California conference and this conference, I'd spend a long while chasing them all down."
He did, however, give Hill supporters some advice on bettering their chances.
"The community presents for us a very important resource of military value," he said. "I cannot stress too much the importance of community interaction in this process."
Lyles noted that Hill supporters are doing well in that area.
"We've had several (from) Utah communities come in to visit already," he said. "I think if Mike Pavich (president of Hill/DDO) comes in any more we'll have to give him his own desk."
Utah officials are certain that if federal decisionmakers focus only on the criteria mandated in the 1991 base closure statute - the base's military value, return on investment, and community and en-vi-ronmental impact - Hill will sail through the process victorious.
But if the process gets political, as many think it will, Hill will be at a disadvantage because of Utah's relatively small political influence.
"If it stays on a pure interservice base competitive basis, we will win," Hatch said. "If it goes to politics, we're sunk."
But Lyles insisted the commission will go by the book.
"My opinion is that the process is just about as free of politics as you can make it," he said. That comment prompted widespread laughter in the disbelieving forum audience.
Perhaps the most influential Utahns in the process were the ones who knew the least regarding what the whole thing was about.
Among the hundreds of schoolchildren lining the route were 75 second-graders from Ogden's Edison Elementary School. They stood nearly an hour in 19-degree cold waiting to greet the staffers' motorcade with flags and a big sign saying "Future Employees of Hill Air Force Base."
Then the VIP cars passed by, accompanied by three police cars with lights flashing and two policemen on motorcycles who looked nearly frozen after the open-air journey from Salt Lake City. The children waved and shouted on their teachers' cue.
"We're doing a parade," one student said.