Craig Field growing, thriving decades after military operations ended

Published 6:08 pm Friday, October 4, 2019

Connecting the Craig Field of Aug. 1977, when the last military aircrafts were dotting the sky on their voyage away from Selma, and the Craig Field of today, a growing site of economic invigoration in Dallas County, is a crooked path, full of comings and goings, ups and downs, advances and setbacks.

However, the connecting path runs directly into two men – Jim Corrigan, who currently serves as Executive Director of the Craig Field Airport and Industrial Authority (CFAIA) and was there to fly planes away from Craig Field when it was decommissioned as a military base in the late 1970s, and Wayne Vardaman, currently the Executive Director of the Selma-Dallas County Economic Development Authority (EDA) who journeyed to Washington when Craig was facing closure to plead the case on behalf of the region in which it operated.

“[Craig] had one of the best records of any base in the country,” Vardaman said. “It comes down to, like everything else, politics.”

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The exact reasons why Craig Field was put on the chopping block just before the dawn of the 1980s is still debated today, but the battles for the soul of the land on which the base was founded ramped up immediately after military operations ended and, in some ways, those battles continue today. Portions of Craig Field are still owned by the federal government to this day, leaving Corrigan and Vardaman to go to bat constantly for use of certain parcels.

Within a year of Craig Air Force Base’s closure in the early Fall of 1976, when the CFAIA had taken control of the land, Beech Aircraft Company had set up shop at Craig, bringing in more than 500 jobs.

From its space at Craig Field, the company went on to build entire planes here, from the component parts to the engine and everything between and beyond.

“At that particular time, nobody in the state was doing that,” Vardaman said.

But a change in the tax law a short while later regarding small planes caused a drop in sales for the aircraft manufacturer, causing jobs to be lost and prompting the company to move operations to its headquarters in Kansas.

Beech was replaced by a company running Maintenance Repair Operations (MRO) out of one of Craig’s hangars and an upholstery depot, which netted as many as 100 new jobs. It was eventually replaced by Raytheon, which was eventually replaced by L3.

The problem at that time, however, was the fact that the companies who took up space at Craig Field held all of the land leases, leaving nothing for the CFAIA to market to potential newcomers.

Over the years, leaders at Craig and elsewhere have continued to creatively tackle the problem, often having to seek approval from the federal government before they can hand over land to prospective businesses. All the while companies continued to come and go.

Before L3 shuttered its local operation, American Candy Company, with which Vardaman was affiliated at the time, set up shop at Craig, creating roughly 300 jobs and constructing an enormous warehouse in which it housed its local operations. When the company eventually left, its building was purchased by the CFAIA and levied as an incentive to bring in SEOYON E-HWA, which operated under a different name at the time but maintains operations locally to this day.

Plantation Patterns, a company that manufactures a variety of outdoor furniture, came to the area and is still in place.

The tribulations inherent in recruiting and retaining industries, which operate at the whim of shifts in policy and demand, have always been prevalent in navigating the waters from a military base to an economic engine, and such was the case when officials at Craig began pursuing a road project along Hwy. 145.

Corrigan and Vardaman noted that Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman had signed off on paving the then-dirt road running along the backside of Craig Field, but when Alabama Gov. Bob Reilly took office he nixed the plan. A fight was waged between the CFAIA and state government, with then Alabama Treasurer Kay Ivey being the most vocal opponent of the effort, and Craig eventually won out.

“Paving that highway sealed the deal for SEOYON E-HWA,” Corrigan said. “It’s been a struggle, but we’ve brought 1,200 jobs to Craig.

Eovations, a division of Universal Forest Products, took up residence at Craig and employed more than 100 workers creating composite materials, and Timewell Drainage Products recently bought the last available building at Craig and is slated to launch its operations next year.

“A lot of people think things are just not happening,” Vardaman said. “It’s been happening all along.”

But the comings and goings of companies are only part of the story. Corrigan and Vardaman can vividly recall every opportunity that got away, like the time Lockheed Martin partnered with the CFAIA for an introductory flight-training program that would have brought in around 600 jobs. Or the time the Kuwaiti military wanted to set up a flight school at Craig.

“Over the years, we learned a lot,” Vardaman said. “So all of that time wasn’t wasted.”

Corrigan took the reins at Craig last November, bringing memories and experiences from the Craig Air Force Base he trained at that would prove invaluable to creating a vision that includes the aviation industry.

“I got to see a lot of things and travel the world and it all started with the aviation training I got here at Craig,” Corrigan said. “I could have just played golf, but I want to be part of the team that is making this place better. It’s time to look toward the future.”

More than anything, Corrigan and Vardaman have heard the same reservations from prospective business partners – crime and an unskilled workforce were of chief concern – so Corrigan began by addressing those issues head on, installing cameras and establishing a Homeowners’ Association and more.

“I wanted to create pride in Craig,” Corrigan said. “We’re going to make it marketable and we’re making progress towards that.”

All the while, Corrigan is busy increasing functionality on the flight line and fixing up the new hangars in an effort to recruit businesses in the aviation industry.

“You’ll never get to that pace of the airfield before it was closed,” Corrigan said. “But we’re trying to market now and we are slowly moving in that direction.”

Vardaman agreed.

“Doing something to Craig is not the panacea for Selma that people think it is,” Vardaman said.

Despite that, Corrigan is committed to seeing Craig Field employ Selma workers.

“What I want to do to get the maximum boost for Selma is hire people from Selma,” Corrigan said. “If I get 500 jobs, I want 500 people from Selma.”

While Vardaman is eying a plan to spend $12,500 to market Craig to potential companies over the coming months, and Corrigan is keeping tabs on the projects already in the works, Alabama Department of Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield is singing the praises of both Corrigan and Craig Field.

“Our marketing program focuses heavily on the aviation and automotive sectors and other types of advanced manufacturing,” Canfield said. “All of these are a good fit for Craig Field.  We worked with the Legislature this past session to get Dallas County designated as a ‘Targeted County,’ which will allow for enhanced state incentives for prospects looking at Craig.”

Canfield noted that industrial parks by nature are job creators and an important asset to any community, adding that Craig is in good hands under the dual guidance of Corrigan and Vardaman.

“The future is bright for Craig Field,” Canfield said. “Bringing in Jim Corrigan as executive director was a good move because of his experience in aviation. He and Wayne Vardaman with the Selma and Dallas County EDA make a good team in marketing Craig Field to business prospects.”

“We’re going to go get business,” Corrigan said. “We’re going to work as hard as we ever have. We’ve got to change the perception of Selma and Dallas County. I know Selma’s history and I know Craig’s history, but I’m ready to look forward.”