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Closure of George Air Force Base: 20 years later
'Gold mine' base shaped, changed Victor Valley
This is the second in an occasional series of stories commemorating the history of George Air Force Base, which shut down 20 years ago Saturday. To read the first story by clicking here.
VICTORVILLE • Andre Damico was stationed at George Air Force Base in 1963 as a medical service specialist.
Although Victorville wasn't as developed as it is now, he used to hang out with other young military medics at shops and restaurants along Seventh Street. Living on the base, he listened to F-4 fighter bombers flying in an out of the base, day and night.
“There was noise all the time, but it was OK, it was a good noise,” Damico, 67, said. “We were protected here on the West Coast.”
But George Air Force Base, which many long-time residents refer to as “George” with nostalgia, was shut down 20 years ago Saturday. The military base helped shape the Victor Valley during the mid to latter half of the 20th century, but its closure also left lasting scars both economically and emotionally.
The impact of the closure epitomized the nationwide post-Cold War recession triggered by the defense budget cuts as the local housing market collapsed and retail sales sunk.
The Victorville Army Airfield — the forerunner to George Air Force Base — opened as a training center for the pilots and bombardiers two months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. It quickly became an anchor for the High Desert’s economy and a source of local pride.
John Husing, an Inland Empire economist, said the base was like “a gold mine in the old western town” that attracted money and people to the desert.
The 5,300-acre base brought in defense budget and employed more than 5,000 military and civilian personnel who spent money outside the base. Retail and other businesses moved into the area to serve these people.
Thom Bond moved from San Bernardino to the desert to work as an Air Force photographer in 1973.
“I had some good friends,” Bond, 60, said. “We went to Adelanto to hang out. Adelanto was a nice town then. You could walk the streets at night.”
But the base was chosen as one of six California military facilities marked for shut down, when Congress approved the first round of closures in 1988. Four years later on Dec. 15, 1992, George became the first base in California to close under the Base Realignment and Closure program.
The gold mine was taken away.
“People knew it was going to close, but most people just didn’t recognize the economic impact it would have on the community,” Bond said. “I saw things just fall apart in 1992 when it closed. Honestly, I underestimated that it was huge. It was huge because military people bought stuff in the community if they needed a car or refrigerator.”
The housing market took a hit because many military personnel and civilian workers sold their houses and left the area.
The median home price in 1991 was $108,384 in the High Desert (including Barstow), according to Husing. It began declining in 1992 and bottomed out at $80,598 in 1998.
“That’s directly related to the closure of George Air Force Base,” Husing said. “There’s no other reason for it.”
The area near Rancherias and Thunderbird roads in Apple Valley used to house military officers and young soldiers when the base was open. But they moved out, and the neighborhood eventually became known locally as “Felony Flats,” filled with low-income housing.
“I used to live out there,” Bond said. “It was a nice area.”
Husing estimated the Victor Valley lost about 9,000 jobs, based on the theory that for every job lost on a military base, three-quarters of a job would be lost in the local economy.
The inflation-adjusted retail sales in the Victor Valley were $752.9 million in 1991, according to Husing. The figure dropped to $680.8 million in 1993.
“In terms of base closures, San Bernardino County was the hardest hit in the United States. ... We were at the top of the list with two base closures within a 50-mile radius,” Husing said, referring to George and the 1994 closure of Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino.
The base closure also brought a demographic shift in the Victor Valley.
George employed educated military officers and civilians, some of them holding post-baccalaureate degrees. The Victor Valley was similar to Ridgecrest, where engineers and scientists working on Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake live, said Peter Allan, economics professor at Victor Valley College.
“When they left, we ended up with a much bigger base of people with barely high school degrees,” Allan said.
But others decided to stay in the area, including Bond and Damico.
“I fell in love with the desert,” said Damico, who lives in Adelanto. “I don’t think (the closure) affected me all that much. I just wish it was still there. It was a nice place to be. It wasn’t like work. It was a fun place to be and I enjoyed working there.”
Tomoya Shimura may be reached at (760) 955-5368 or TShimura@VVDailyPress.com. Follow Tomoya on Facebook at facebook.com/ShimuraTomoya.
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