What Happens to a Community
When an Air Base Closes?
Station personnel march past the reviewing stand for the last time; the RCAF ensign is lowered and another Air Force station is officially closed. This scene, repeated several times across Canada in the past few months, prompts the question, "What happens to a community when an air force unit closes?".
The short answer is that it depends on the community. Near large urban centres the closing of an air case presents no serious problem, as the local labour market is able to absorb most of the civilian employees laid-off by the military. In some cases, such as the RCAF Kitsilano site located in downtown Vancouver, real estate agents, building contractors and municipal officials were actually pleased to see the air force establishment closed and vested interests vied with each other for this valuable property. In small communities, however, the situation is very different. In such places as Torbay, Newfoundland; Parent, Quebec; and Cranberry Portage, Manitoba the local air force establishments played a big role in both the economic and social life of the community. It is in such communities as these that the effects of an air base closing are most keenly felt.
Recognition of this hardship was expressed in Defence Minister Paul T Hellyerís speech in the House of Commons last December (1963) when he announced that a number of military bases would be closed. Mr. Hellyer stated that reductions in the defence establishment would help provide a more effective contribution to the national security. He added that there was no way of accomplishing these re-adjustments without causing some individual or community problems. "We are therefore anxious," he said, "to give the maximum advance notice of changes in order to minimize these problems of readjustment."
For RCAF Station Beaverbank, located approximately 27 miles northwest of Halifax, more than two months elapsed between notification of the stationís closing (9 March) and the actual closing (29 May). Beaverbank was closed for the same reason that three other Pinetree radar sites, St. Sylvestre, Parent and Edgar were closed: they became redundant. When these sites were established more than 10 years ago, radar equipment was neither as powerful nor as reliable as it is today so the stations were constructed relatively close together. But, with technological advances such as SAGE (semi-automatic ground environment) coming into existence, the greatly improved detection and tracking capabilities of the overall defence system meant that fewer radar sites were required. Thus, Beaverbank and the other units were phased-out. Another factor in the decision to close these stations was their cost. It is estimated $6,000,000 will be saved annually because Beaverbank, St. Sylvestre, Parent and Edgar have been demobilized.
So much for the reasons for closing. What about the community? What happens to the civilians who work on air force stations and the merchants who cater to air force customers? What do these civilians do for alternative employment and for loss of business? In addition, there are many intangibles that canít be added up in a ledger but which, nevertheless, exist. For instance, service personnel and local civilians invariably develop many friendships. They join together in service clubs, youth organizations and athletic events to their mutual advantage and for the good of the community. Residents of local towns are invited to air force establishments on special occasions and servicemen are welcomed into community churches and private homes. Obviously, when a military establishment closes there are many matters to be dealt with.
Perhaps the most important problem is the question of employment for civilians about to lose their jobs. In the case of Beaverbank, a little pre-planning paid off. The stationís Civilian Personnel Officer, representatives from the National Employment Service (NES) and the Civil Service Commission (CSC) collectively prepared for a job ahead. Each of the approximately 100 civilian employees being affected was interviewed. During the interview the employees were advised on their pension entitlement, briefed on the Public Service Superannuation Act and asked about their wishes for future employment. Reports were prepared for the NES and CSC giving such details as the employeeís qualifications, seniority and whether or not he was willing to accept a job outside of Nova Scotia. As a result of this preparatory work, 40 former employees of RCAF Station Beaverbank were placed in other government positions. In addition, several found jobs on their own initiative. There is, of course, still a residual employment problem but this is true of Canada generally and not entirely the result of military establishment closing.
As for the merchants in the Beaverbank area, there is no doubt that the RCAF evacuation will make a difference since the station added approximately $80,000 a month to the local economy. However, not all of this combined military/civilian payroll was spent in the local area as many individuals, civilians as well as servicemen, travelled to Halifax to shop.
One of the merchants most affected by Beaverbankís closing is Mr. AD Fader, owner of Faderís Clover Farm, the closest grocery store to the air force station. Mr. Fader originally had his store at a crossroad leading to Sackville, NS, but a year ago (1963) he re-located on the main Windsor highway in order to be closer to his air force customers and it was a blow to hear that the radar site was closing. But, like other merchants in the area, Mr. Fader is as much concerned about losing his air force friends as he is about losing air force business. Specifically, he regretted the fact that the Sackville Volunteer Fire Department was losing the valuable services of Cpl. R Lacharite, a member of Station Beaverbankís supply section and chairman of the Sackville fire preventative committee.
Like Mr. Fader, Mr. H France, the owner of Bedford Home Furnishings, is concerned not only with the loss of business but also with the end of a long and pleasant relationship with RCAF Station Beaverbank. As president of the local branch of the Canadian Legion, Mr. France can recall many occasions when he and the Legionnaires went to the station for an evening of entertainment and conviviality. As president of the Bedford and district Boy Scout Association, he is grateful to the air force for allowing the local Scout Troop access to the station swimming pool on Saturday mornings and, as an ex-serviceman and honourary member of the sergeantís mess, Mr. France looks back with nostalgia on many enjoyable evenings spent in a familiar military environment.
"Almost everyone in the community engages in banking", stated Mr. R De Grasse, manager of the Bedford branch of the Bank of Nova Scotia, "so when a community is reduced in size, the community banks are most vulnerable." For Mr. De Grasse, the arrival of RCAF Station Beaverbank meant that his bank would have to expand. And expand it did. From an original staff of three, the number of personnel increased to 15 as a direct result of financial transactions with the station itself and with the personnel living there.
Following standard banking policy Mr. De Grasseís position with the bank grew in proportion to the amount of new business which the station brought in: therefore, the closing of Beaverbank had a personal meaning for him. When the air force left Mr. De Grasse had to be transferred to another local where an equivalent amount of business is transacted. Although, as a businessman he feels sorry for the loss of business, as a taxpayer he realizes that there is no justification for keeping open a military installation when it is no longer required.
One person who isnít moving, no matter what happens to the Beaverbank radar site, is the man who was the first RCAF member to arrive at the installation. Commissionaire CL Grover, formerly WO1 Grover, was foreman of works during the period 1 Sep Ė 15 Dec 1953 when the buildings were being accepted by the RCAF from the civilian contractor.
"I was", says Mr. Grover with tongue-in-cheek, "the first CO of the station by virtue of the fact that I was the only RCAF member here for several weeks." During his tour, WO Grover built a house for himself near the station. After more than three years at Beaverbank, he was posted to No. 1 Air Division overseas. In February 1963, he reached compulsory retirement age and in July of that year he returned to his house up the road and to Station Beaverbank as a civilian. Now on the job at the front gate, Commissionaire Grover says "I was here to open the station and Iíll be here to close it. Sorry to see the air force go but it was wonderful to have them here." And that about sums up the sentiments of the local people.
The recent closure of RCAF Station Parent, PQ, illustrates how a community can be dealt a near-mortal blow when it depends on the military for its main support. Located approximately 120 miles north of Montreal, Parent came into existence in 1910 when the CNR established a divisional point there for a railway to the north. Then into this founding townsite came a lumbering company. The economy of the town remained relatively stable until 1953 when disaster struck. The CNR converted from steam to diesel engines and the divisional point was moved elsewhere. The town appeared doomed but a timely reprieve was given when the RCAF began constructing a Pinetree Line radar station three miles out of town. Once more there were jobs available in the area with DND replacing the CNR as the major employer.
Now that the radar site has closed, the future of the town looks bleak. The NES has found work for a number of civilian employees by transferring them to other military establishments, but for those who do not want to leave the area, the only alternative work is wood cutting. Parentís mayor, Mr. A Villemure, says hopefully that the town council has been negotiating to have a wood-products factory re-locate in Parent. The problem is accentuated because of the townís remote location. This feature, of course, was to Parentís advantage when it was selected as a radar site. But from the point of view of a manufacturer, Parentís location presents a considerable transportation problem.
As well as reducing employment opportunities, the closing of the radar site has had other effects on Parent. One of the three hotels in town is closing since it cannot be made to pay without air force business; the townís only doctor has left for the same reason. The cure, who was also the RC padre at Station Parent, has been transferred since the parish priest can handle the spiritual needs of the townspeople alone. The main clothing store in Parent is offering a smaller variety of merchandise to its decreased clientele since the storeís inventory must be cut back. Children from the town who formerly attended the RCAF-operated English-language school (through special arrangement with the DND) will have to live in some other locality if they wish to continue their studies in English. And the railway station, which burnt down this spring, will not be rebuilt since the expenditure cannot be justified without air force traffic.
In many ways, the separation of a military establishment from a civilian community creates a hardship not only from the economic point of view but also from the social side. But, the over-riding fact is the matter of necessity. Military units are opened and closed in accordance with the exigencies of the services. And, unfortunate though it may be to the local scene, when a military establishment is no longer required for the national purpose, the only recourse is to close it.
Fortunately, not all stories have such an unhappy ending as that of Parent. In the case of RCAF Station Dawson Creek circumstances combined to produce a more satisfactory conclusion. Dawson Creek, in the Peace River district of BC, was one of four sector control stations of the Mid-Canada Line to be closed. On 12 Jan 64 the station ceased to be operational and at the end of March the unit was completely phased-out.
There was the inevitable adjustments as a result of the closing. Civilian workers were laid off, people left the area and real estate became unsettled as many homes went on the market. It also appeared that the local Masonic Lodge and Air Cadet Squadron would be in difficulty. But, after the initial repercussions of the stationís closing, the BC government purchased the 68-acre air force site for a vocational school which eventually will be the largest in the province. Not only was the former air force establishment, including much of the electronic equipment, acquired by the province but a substantial sum was spent on the base to improve and modify it for its new role. Fortunately, other arrangements were made to house the Air Cadet Squadron.
The 22 PMQ units the RCAF had built and which were vacated when the radar site closed, were purchased by the RCMP as homes for the Mounties. The houses in the town of Dawson Creek, sold when personnel employed by the RCAF left the area, do not pose a serious problem. As Mr. Stan Carnell, a real estate agent in Dawson Creek, said, "It seems that a few individuals sold their houses quickly after the closing was announced and suffered severe financial losses because of their hurry. But, there will be no long standing adverse effect on real estate in the area."
The employment situation at Dawson Creek has also been clarified. For about two months, many technical people who were working for Canadian Aviation Electronics maintaining the radar site, were uncertain of their future. Some of the older employees retired, others found employment on the Peace River Dam project while several were hired by Canadian National Telegraph and others by Federal Electric for work on the DEW Line. Now CAE has transferred the employees it wished to keep and other personnel may be hired by the vocational school when it opens next fall. A residual group including janitors, cleaners and kitchen staff, are still without steady employment, which is not an unusual situation for those employed in such work.
Summing up the situation created at Dawson Creek when the air force unit closed, City Treasurer EM Hillhouse stated, "At first glance it appeared that the city would suffer a considerable loss in population and payroll. It now seems the setback will only be temporary because of the forthcoming vocational school." Or as Mr. Carnell, formerly a member of the BC legislative assembly for South Peace, worded it, "You canít criticize taxation and then complain about defence expenditures being reduced in your area."
As previously mentioned, in a city the size of Vancouver the departure of the RCAF is a matter of small consequence, except to those directly involved. Since 1940 an RCAF station, by one name or another, has been located on Sea Island in the municipality of Richmond. During those 24 years air force personnel and their families greatly helped the economy of the municipality and participated in many of the community affairs.
When the announcement came that Station Vancouver was closing this summer it meant that some 500 air force personnel and approximately 200 civilians would be affected. For the air force people, leaving Vancouver might not be in keeping with their personal wishes but being members of the military, and used to being transferred, they took the announcement in their stride. For the civilians, who arenít accustomed to being up-rooted, the closing of the base was an unpleasant event. Richmond merchants are naturally concerned over the loss of business, and the municipality will no longer get the yearly grant which it received from the DND. One of the immediate reactions to the closing of Station Vancouver was the cancellation of a contract to build four additional rooms to the elementary school. However, the situation has been tempered somewhat by the fact that the RCAFís No. 11 AMU will continue to operate and the Canadian Army took over the married quarters when the air force moved out this summer.
While the municipality of Richmond showed some concern about the closing of the air base, Greater Vancouver as a whole took little notice of the air force departure from the scene. Judging by items in the newspapers, the announcement that the Kitsilano site was being disbanded had small impact on the community. There was practically no public sentiment expressed one way or the other. Kitsilano site, located adjacent to False Creek under the Burrard Bridge, occupies some choice real estate and the news of the RCAF departure was received locally with interest and pleasure. The RCAFís Rescue Coordination Centre will remain located at 4050 W. 4th Avenue, former home of the now-disbanded No. 5 Air Division Headquarters. A number of projects have been suggested for the property, ranging from parks to high-rise apartments to a CBC studio.
Calgary and Saskatoon are other large centres which have taken the air force departure in stride. As in Vancouver, auxiliary formations as well as regular units were disbanded in both cities earlier this year, but their demise was mourned more for sentimental than economic reasons.
Mayor Percy Klaehn of Saskatoon, allowing the fact that the move had been a temporary financial blow to his city, feels that Saskatoon will miss the air force people more than their money. He cited several examples of how RCAF personnel played an active part in community life (i.e. S/L J Shaw, last CO of Station Saskatoon, was chairman of the United Appeal federal services division; LAC ME Thompson was president of the cityís 5,000 member bowling league last winter; Cpl. R Parker operated a baseball umpires school this spring). He pointed out that the city is cooperating with the Kinsmenís Club in maintaining the 40-member RCAF auxiliary band which has won many musical honours.
RCAF evacuation of airport facilities in these cities provided opportunities for private enterprise to move in. For instance, at former Station Saskatoon the supply, construction engineering and recreation buildings have been taken over by a plastics firm; a World War II hangar now houses a private flying service; the RCAF Association benefited by acquiring the former auxiliary officers mess and some additional property.
Thus it is evident that each community is affected in different ways when an adjacent air base closes. For some, mainly those located in isolated areas and dependent solely on RCAF business, it means near-disaster. For others, it means new opportunities for civic expansion. For the Canadian taxpayer in general and the federal government in particular, these moves are designed to make more efficient use of the funds available for national defence.
This article was written by Flight Lieutenant TG Coughlin, Assistant Editor of the RCAF Roundel magazine. The article was published in the September 1964 issue of the Roundel magazine.