Montgomery Business Journal

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There is a special bond between Maxwell Air Force Base, Gunter Annex and Montgomery and the River Region

October 2014
Story by David Zaslawsky
Photos by Robert Fouts

Unlike some communities that may offer a 10-percent discount to the zoo with a military identification, there was a small army of volunteers to serve the River Region’s military and family members at the annual Montgomery Zoo event.

The Wright Flyers and Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce staff served nearly 2,300 free meals to military personnel and their families, which included active duty and retired military. The zoo visit was free.

It was a large feast to say the least, with 10 cases of hot dogs, 15 cases of hamburgers, 43 cases of potato chips, 1,800 ice cream sandwiches as well as 40 cases of water and 50 bags of ice.

This was such an important event that Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange attended as well as business executives. “You can make sure that they had a fun, free day for their families, but also by cooking we get to intermingle,” said Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce Chairman of the Board of Directors Leslie Sanders. “I met a lot of new people that day – a lot of kids.”

The message is both loud and clear from local government to the business community: Montgomery embraces Maxwell Air Force Base and Gunter Annex and this is no one-sided relationship.

“It’s not just lip service,” Strange said. “We get to know them personally. We visit in their home and they visit in our home.” Strange and his wife actually entertained Air University Commander and President Lt. Gen. David Fadok at the mayor’s beach home on the Alabama Gulf Coast.

“To me, it’s pretty unbelievable,” said Col. Andrea Tullos, commander of the 42nd Air Base Wing, which oversees the day-to-day operations of Maxwell Air Force and Gunter Annex, who attended the zoo event. “That’s an extraordinary undertaking – that’s all volunteers.”

She said the military appreciation day at the zoo is the community’s “expression of thanks.” Tullos sees and experiences that expression of thanks whenever she leaves the base, especially when she is not wearing her uniform. Businesspeople ask her if she is with the military so they can give her a discount. She said that someone paid for her deputy’s lunch and left a note on the back of the check: “Thanks for your service.”

Tullos said that it’s customary for businesses to offer military discounts, “but I’ve never had someone ask me if I was in the military” to give me a discount. “It’s the very subtle ways that a community reaches out to that segment of the population before they even know you are a part of it,” Tullos said.

“It doesn’t matter who I call; what their day job is … they are trying to find ways to make space on their calendars and it’s always what can we do to help.”

Sometimes, it’s not subtle, as when Sanders along with Strange and Montgomery County Chairman Elton N. Dean Sr. visit various classes at Air University and attend graduation ceremonies. “It may start out as if there might be a professional responsibility to go meet and greet, but it becomes a cherished relationship, that we’re sad when they leave,” Sanders said.

“We mourn when the classes go. We just lost the best soccer coach we ever had. The great thing is, I get the impression that a lot of them don’t want to leave either, which reinforces that we have a great quality of life and we appreciate you for you. They are an invaluable part of the community just like everyone else.”

Former 42nd Air Base Wing Commander Col. Kris Beasley said, “The reception that we receive here is incredible. People want to be appreciated and we are appreciated here in a great way. We are certainly appreciated here as much or more than anywhere I’ve ever been.”

And the colonel has been around a lot – around the country and the world. Beasley said that he has been at 20-plus bases and all those communities do appreciate the military. “I’ve never been at a place where we were hands off or not liked at all, but there are places where it’s a much warmer welcome than others. Clearly, here in Montgomery and in the River Region there is a very warm welcome. When our people come in they get that welcome and it’s much more than just, ‘hey, we’re glad you’re bringing some jobs.’ ”

Maxwell Air Force Base and Gunter Annex have a combined $2 billion annual economic impact on the River Region. The 42nd Air Base Wing, which includes 40-plus tenant units, has 42,000 personnel including students, families and civilian workers. Maxwell has a $500 million-plus operating budget and combined with the Gunter Annex have an annual payroll of $750 million.

“Sometimes there is a perception that is the economy,” Tullos said, “but it’s more than just the economy. It’s the family-side; it’s the recreational-side; it’s the educational-side.”

Although the economic figures are huge, that’s not what the area’s relationship with Maxwell/Gunter Annex is about. “It’s a lot more than the money,” said Sanders, who is vice president of Alabama Power Co.’s Southern Division. “It’s about people. It’s about their experience. It is our privilege to help them get interwoven into the fabric of the community so that they don’t skip a beat. They need a guide to know what to do and we can do that professionally and personally.”

Sanders did that personally with Tullos, who has been at her post a little more than four months. The two had dinner at Jubilee Seafood restaurant in Cloverdale. Sanders said she will talk with female military personnel about hair salons, nail salons, doctors, dentists – “all of those things are really important,” she said. 

All the things that Montgomery does from improving the roads by Maxwell and Gunter Annex to building Freedom Park to building Wright Brothers Park with a replica of a Wright Flyer to a military appreciation night at Riverwalk Stadium to parades and to have Fadok attend Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors meeting – show the community’s support for the military. “We treat Gen. Fadok like he is an elected leader,” Dean said. “We’ve put a lot of effort in reaching out to the military. We appreciate the military. So often military people retire here and they are some of the best-trained people in technology, management and leadership. They have been valuable assets to Montgomery.”

They have been valuable assets in both small and large ways – as volunteers to clean up schools; donate blood; teach Sunday school; and coach sports, among many other activities.

Volunteers from Maxwell/Gunter teamed up with Alabama Power volunteers to clean up Boat Ramp Park, removing two barges of debris. They also put down sod. “That shows the kind of partnership between the city, a local business and the military all volunteering their time in early mornings and weekends to get that ready for the city,” Sanders said.

The city and Chamber have staff who work closely with the military members of the community who are huge Maxwell/Gunter supporters.

“We need to continue to remind this community that we are a military community,” Sanders said.  “We get that we’re the state capital, but we’re really a military community. You’ve seen us talk about that and focus and emphasize that through the Chamber this year.”

At various events, you’ll hear Strange, Dean, Sanders and Maxwell officials say that Montgomery is the best hometown in the Air Force. That slogan, according to Col. Trent Edwards, originated with Col. Chris Bargery four years ago when he was the Mission Support Group Commander for the 42nd Air Base Wing.

That slogan “was used to describe the sense of a hometown community that (Bargery’s) Mission Support Group airmen were responsible for providing Maxwell Air Force Base and Gunter Annex,” Edwards wrote in an email. Edwards preceded Tullos as the 42nd Air Base Wing commander earlier this year. He wrote that “there is something special about Maxwell Air Force Base” as most of the Air Force members are at Maxwell during their careers – attending classes.

“Our goal at the 42nd Air Base Wing is to create a world-class hometown experience for the tens of thousands of airmen who transit through Maxwell Air Force Base every single year and we are very proud to do so,” Edwards wrote.

“We are equally proud of the incredible support and partnership we receive from the River Region community. The opportunity for our airmen to travel outside the base and have quality restaurants, shopping, schools, theater and sports and recreation activities contributes (to) the best hometown and the Air Force experience we’ve created.”

Tullos said it’s the Air Base Wing’s responsibility to make the airmen feel like it’s home – a warm, relaxing feeling “that we try to provide everybody that comes to Maxwell, whether they are here just for a week of training or whether they are here for a year of Air War College,” she said.

“The installation strives to be one of the crown jewels of the Air Force. People come down here and we want to make it head turning. We want that first impression to be lasting.”

Of course, being the best hometown in the Air Force is something that local officials brag about every chance they get. Strange said “that is pretty significant” when Air Force officials say that. “It’s a really good marketing mantra,” he said. “We can use that not only in defense-related economic development whether it be aerospace or any other manufacturing situation that would have a product or service for the military. You take every advantage that you can get to show your connectivity to the military.”

Tullos feels that connectivity. “My impression here is that things are going so well I just need not to screw it up – just stay out of the way. Nothing is broken. You really have to find ways on the margins and just try to keep the momentum going.

“To us, Maxwell is the home of the Air Force. It is the one place where everyone intersects.”

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