Longform

Will El Mirage Ever Be Able to Emerge From the Shadow of Luke Air Force Base?

The Mexican migrant workers who settled on the west bank of the Agua Fria River more than 70 years ago didn't have an easy life, but it was a good one.

They toiled in the fields, sowing seeds, pulling weeds, and picking watermelons, onions, and cotton. They carved out canals to water the farmlands. And they raised their families in simple ranch houses.

In 1937, they founded El Mirage, then a 134-acre town about 20 miles northwest of Phoenix. It was a community built on the dreams of farm workers who, after spending their lives harvesting crops across the country, wanted to plant some roots of their own.

The West Valley also proved attractive to the U.S. Army. In 1940, it sent a scout to Arizona to find a spot where the Army Air Corps could provide advanced training to fighter pilots. They set their sights on 1,440 acres of land several miles west of El Mirage, and the following year opened Litchfield Park Air Base, later renamed Luke Air Force Base.

Lifelong residents of El Mirage remember living comfortably for decades with the nearby military base. The community became a city in 1951 and still managed to avoid rifts with military officials. After a while, the sounds of jet engines screeching overhead simply faded into the background.

Jets ripping through the sky epitomized freedom and protection. And for most of Arizona, they also represented an economic boon.

But never for El Mirage.

When the jets fly overhead, their powerful engines are sometimes low and loud enough to rattle windows and walls. The roar can easily silence a conversation.

A 2008 study commissioned by state officials estimated that the military industry generates $9 billion annually in economic output in Arizona, in part, through job creation and military contracts with local businesses.

But for El Mirage, where the population numbers about 33,000, the military presence has been nothing but an impediment to economic prosperity. El Mirage has faced constant opposition from military officials and stymied growth because of its proximity to Luke Air Force Base.

State-imposed development restrictions meant to protect Luke from encroachment also kept many developers at bay. That put a significant hurt on El Mirage because a whopping 60 percent of the community sits beneath those restricted high-noise and accident-potential zones.

True, it didn't keep away a Walmart Super Center, which opened in El Mirage in 2005. That retail giant has proved to be one of the city's major successes, bringing about 500 jobs to the community and as much as $5 million annually in sales tax revenues.

But a single store — even a Walmart — isn't enough to support an entire city.

Over the years, nearby cities like Glendale and Sun City have elbowed military officials into concessions to ease noise and development restrictions. Not El Mirage. And so the planes fly over — and over and over.

The city has a legacy of well-meaning leaders who have tried to make El Mirage a great community. Historically, elected officials in El Mirage may not have been politically polished in their attempts to get that message across, but they stood up for what they believed was in the residents' best interests.

They fought for prosperity and highlighted the opportunities El Mirage missed out on because of Luke Air Force Base, including a $20 million resort-style hotel and convention center that military officials opposed in 1983.

Luke brass apparently didn't have anything to say about this to New Times.

A call to Luke's public affairs bureau was directed to Rusty Mitchell, director of Luke's "Community Initiatives Team." But New Times never heard back from him.

That's odd. Luke wasn't always afraid to come to the phone. And Luke used to come out swinging against cities and projects that threatened the base.

But lately, they've let others wear the gloves. There's Fighter Country Partnership, an advocacy group of community leaders that support Luke. There is Luke Forward, a campaign launched to promote Arizona's support of Luke and its continued training mission.

And there is Lana Mook, who couldn't be a bigger supporter of the base if she was on its payroll.

A retiree who moved to El Mirage a few years ago, Mook couldn't stand what she considered to be all the Luke bashing in her adopted hometown. She and her neighbors at Pueblo Mirage, a retirement community, started a group to counter it.

Mook is a 63-year-old grandmother of four, a community volunteer, and a workaholic — even in her retirement years — who once held management jobs in the healthcare industry.

Her goal has been to stir support in El Mirage for Luke Air Force Base while debunking city officials' claims that the base is to blame for the city's inadequate economic development.

The group she helped found also hosted community meetings with noise experts to silence the city's claims that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a new jet expected to eventually replace the existing warbirds at Luke, would be too loud and disrupt life in the community.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo