Congressman Thornberry speaking in Georgia to “Team Dobbins” – Tom Whaylen


Whether the listener is a member of Congress or the average man or woman on the street, David Connell has his elevator pitch ready to help save — and grow — Dobbins Air Reserve Base.

The Cobb Chamber of Commerce CEO is part of a platoon of business and civic leaders on “Team Dobbins,” whose goal is to ensure the base sandwiched between Smyrna and Marietta does not suffer the same fate as other closed installations in the metro area.

While Dobbins isn’t on any active list of shutdown candidates, officials had worried that defense cuts under the federal budget “sequester” might lead to Dobbins’ missions shifting to other bases or even a whole new round of base closures. Those fears have ebbed under a new federal budget deal, but Dobbins boosters aren’t taking any chances.

More than 2,500 full-time jobs are tied to Dobbins, thousands more if you count indirect workers. The massive Lockheed Martin factory next door employs more than 5,700 and relies on Dobbins’ runway and air traffic controllers as part of its aerospace mission.

“Most people in Washington think Dobbins Air Reserve Base is some little reserve base with five airplanes,” Connell said. “It’s got 21 tenants. The runway can land any aircraft in the world. We’re the only (major) military installation in metro Atlanta.”

Dobbins and the neighboring Georgia National Guard headquarters stand as far more than training grounds for Air Force Reserve, National Guard and Air National Guard units. The complex is an economic engine for metro Atlanta, Connell said.

Its annual economic impact is more than $160 million, Cobb officials say. The base’s mission includes training for Marine and Naval Reserve units and serving as the intake center for biological missions tied to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This year, when an Ebola outbreak struck western Africa for instance, patients like Dr. Kent Brantly in medically controlled environments landed at Dobbins to get treatment at Emory University Hospital.

Dobbins also served as a landing spot for many Hurricane Katrina evacuees after the devastating storm.

Bad experiences

Connell is all too familiar with the economic pain caused by the closures of Fort McPherson in south Atlanta and Fort Gillem in Forest Park, as well as Naval Air Station Atlanta, which once was tied to the Dobbins complex. They were casualties of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure process.

Team Dobbins formed about three years ago among major Atlanta area business and political leaders to form a strategy to protect the base from budget cuts or a potential future BRAC process. It created a business plan and updated land use plans around the installation, showing the facility’s worth to state and federal agencies.

Members have traveled to Washington, D.C., several times in the past few years where they say Cobb has some powerful allies.

Among them: U.S. Rep. Tom Price, R-Roswell, leader of the House Budget Committee; U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, who sits on the Homeland Security Committee; Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson; and U.S. David Scott, D-Atlanta.

“Part of our effort is defense to hold on to what we’ve got, but also to make ourselves candidates to pick up missions when consolidation happens,” Connell said.

This month, the Cobb chamber and Atlanta area officials made their cases to one of Congress’s most influential members on military matters.

U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, spoke last week at the 63rd Military Appreciation Luncheon held by the chamber and the Atlanta Regional Military Affairs Council. The luncheon, which drew about 700 people, featured members of each branch of the military and a range of big name attendees, including Price and Loudermilk.

At a reception before the luncheon, Connell and others said they pressed Thornberry on Dobbins’ importance, not only to metro Atlanta, but as a joint-operating facility with other units of the military and federal government.

The base and Air Force Plant No. 6 – which most people commonly know as the Lockheed Martin factory – are critical parts of Cobb’s economy and that of the metro region, chamber and local officials said.

Shan Cooper, a vice president and general manager in Marietta for Lockheed Martin, said Dobbins is essential to the aerospace company’s mission in Cobb County, where it builds C-130J transports and center wing assemblies for F-35 fighter jets.

Bomber plant

Lockheed doesn’t own the factory, founded in the 1940s as a Bell Aircraft bomber factory, the Air Force does, she said.

That factory, Connell said, helped define last century what became Cobb County.

Thornberry, in his speech, said the recent budget deal in Washington will increase funding from the cuts under budget sequestration. But he said the military budget needs boosting because of threats from ISIS, renewed provocations from Russia, the rising influence of China and cyber warfare.

The two-year budget deal is helpful to companies like Lockheed, Cooper said.

“Now we can plan. We know exactly what is going to happen with defense for the next two years,” she said.

Thornberry said the new budget deal prohibits a new BRAC during its term, but couldn’t rule out the possibility in future budget years.

“But when you see all of these threats multiplying around the world, I think we ought to be very careful about giving up some installations or training ranges because we may well regret it someday,” he said.