Nellis officials say development’s creep threatens base

Fast-growing development threatens the survival of Nellis Air Force Base and its annual economic impact of $4.2 billion, top Nellis officials believe.

One of those officials, Maj. Gen. Michael Worden, says encroaching development threatens the base’s existence by making it harder to keep potentially dangerous flights away from neighborhoods.

"We are concerned about losing our ability to operate," Worden, the commander of Nellis’ Air Warfare Center, told about 125 members of the North Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday.

The Air Force facility is already "choked off" by development to the south, and it now faces possible barriers to the north and northwest. That presents tough choices, he said.

"I can’t let our guys take off over the south and fly over homes with a live bomb. I can, but I won’t give them permission," he said. "I can’t afford a loose (bolt on the bomb) and live with my conscience."

The Air Force base’s economic impact, which jumped from $3 billion in fiscal year 2004, is important to many local businesses, Col. Michael Bartley, Nellis’ installation commander, said.

The base buys construction materials and supplies from local companies. Nellis boosts local hotels and motels, too, because the air base uses them to temporarily house service members.

"We also buy fuel, food, parts and electrical supplies, and those are all from local vendors," Bartley said.

Also, another 313,000 military retirees live in the valley, many of whom moved to Southern Nevada to be near Nellis and its services.

That means Nellis accounts for an active-duty payroll of $850 million a year and another $520 million annual in retiree payroll. The base also accounted for $186 million in job creation in 2006.

Growth could derail that economic impact.

The University of Nevada, North Las Vegas campus is being built under the air base’s flight path, and a high-rise proposal near the Las Vegas Motor Speedway poses another concern. Development at Coyote Springs already forces Nellis pilots to "hit the breaks before they reach California," Worden said.

The federal government secured land around Sunrise Mountain to keep the base from being sealed off in the past. This time, at least talks with UNLV are going in the right direction, he said.

"For UNLV, we are all for it, but we say, ‘Don’t build skyscrapers, because we’ll be voted out of office in five to 10 years.’"

The encroachment of new homes near the base is more likely to make the base close.

"Residential is what worries me," Worden said. "We draw some lines. It can’t be rampant, typhoon-type growth. If they grow near where we are, when we fly over, it will be noisy. They might have airplanes with bombs on them fly over and they’ll have to assess that risk."

Contact reporter Valerie Miller at or (702) 387-5286.

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