Bowie still waiting for first puzzle piece
When Bruce Brown was in Bowie from 1983-1991, Bowie Schools' enrollment fluctuated between 140 and 180 students, K-12th grades. He's been back for the last four years and he currently has 88 students enrolled.
A group of Bowie residents met Wednesday to discuss what went wrong with the booming little town, which had more than 800 people in the late '60s and early '70s, and is now hard-pressed to "scare up 350," Brown said.
"We used to have three hotels, a truck stop, grocery stores, seven gas stations and three restaurants," said Bobbie Blandin, a life-long resident. "But the traffic base shifted from through town to around town in the mid '60s when I-10 was constructed. And then the Railroad pulled their crews and shifted to Houston and Willcox. And we don't have the cotton farmers due to government control. We thought we'd survived the construction of the interstate, but look at us now."
Florina Christiernsson said she and her husband own the only garage in town, but they are barely surviving. "We used to be a diesel mechanic, but the 4K Truck Stop came in and took away our business. We don't have enough work and we can't afford to hire anyone else," she said.
"Most families, in order to do something, they leave town. There's nothing for them here. If the school does good with students, you're assured they'll go somewhere else," said Brown, superintendent of Bowie Unified School District.
Christiernsson, 53, added that the people left are on every board available because no one else will take on the responsibility. She is a volunteer firefighter, and on the chamber board and school reunion group.
"We're tired, but on one else is coming along," she said.
Brown added, "If you don't take on several community service groups, a) it doesn't get done, or b) it stays a vacant position. No one has actually been elected on my school board in six to eight years."
Retiree Ernie Blandin is on the fire department board, the school board, the cemetery board and the church board. "I do it because I love it. I like working with people and for people - and out of an obligation to give something back," adding, "but I'm busier now than I was when I worked for Hughes Aircraft."
To compound the problem, Bowie's infrastructure is crumbling around those left.
"The County hasn't improved our infrastructure, the streets need work, and they closed our airport because they didn't want to pay the insurance," Brown said. "Our property values are depressed, our tax rates are high and businesses want certain things when they come in ... schools, housing, stores. I don't know, to be honest, how you would attract a business here."
"We have no wastewater treatment plant," he said. "We need people to get the wastewater treatment plant, and we need housing to get people. It's a chicken and egg situation."
Then came the Bowie Power Plant, as proposed by the SouthWestern Power Group II, based in Phoenix. The original proposal in 2001 was good, said Brown, and the SWPG has always been helping Bowie by "addressing things we are short on."
But the Bowie Power Plant's IGCC proposal, which came in 2006, was better, according to the five-person group, which also included Nancy Jean Welker, the first hire (a Bowie liaison) by SWPG.
The IGCC proposal raised the number of jobs to be had from 40 or 50 to 100-120, increased by two and a half times the economic impact in terms of payroll, and 10 times the current assessed tax valuation. It also included important pieces of the "Bowie puzzle", a wastewater treatment plant, housing and commercial development, Brown said.
"They didn't care that we didn't have these things. SouthWestern Power Group wanted to know what we needed and was there to help," Brown said. "They are the only business I've ever seen that came in and said, 'what can we do for you,' instead of what can you do for us."
Unfortunately for Bowie, the difficulties SWPG has had selling the IGCC proposal, which SWPG officials attribute to ongoing regulatory uncertainties, market economics, and the fact that public understanding of IGCC is less than they thought, has led the proposed project back to a natural gas facility. The time line changes significantly, with construction likely to begin within two years, said Ian Calkins, spokesperson for Bowie Power Plant.
It's not that Bowie isn't still grateful to SWPG for it's natural gas facility plans, which will still bring in increased tax revenue, 40-50 jobs and possibly 50 children to the schools.
Brown said, "We went fishing. We caught a keeper. The big one got off the hook - or maybe the people in the county just let the big one go."
Brown said he is infuriated by the "vocal minority from outside of Bowie, who doesn't live here, pay taxes here or even eat at our restaurants," who chased the IGCC proposal out of the plans "because we don't have enough vision or foresight in Cochise County."
"Now I see people of Sierra Vista up in arms about the Sierra Club out of Maricopa County wanting to sue Fort Huachuca. It's very ironic. It's the same thing we see - what business is it of theirs?" he said.
"Nobody else wants the power plant and we do. We weren't taking anything from anyone else in the county, and we've got what Bowie Power Plant needs - a big piece of dirt, cheaper than most places with the transportation connections a power plant needs. Why isn't the county going, 'Yeah, Bowie did something right!'" Welker said.
Regardless, these Bowie residents still see Bowie Power Plant as "the first piece of the puzzle, which will help all the other ones fit."
They want people to know that the power made by the 500 MW natural gas-fueled, combined cycle plant will be used locally and in Arizona, and possibly elsewhere, but that Arizona is one of the fastest growing states and has already had brown-outs in Phoenix. The power is needed here, they say.
They also say they hope county residents will begin understanding that geothermal and wind energy plants will not work in Bowie.
Welker and Brown explained that it is not hot enough year round for geothermal (it needs 110-120 degree days at least), and takes a huge area (in Mojave Valley that is nine square miles of parabolic mirrors to make it commercially viable) that must be heated underground to 550 to 1200 degrees Centigrade. Bowie winters are too cold, Brown said. And, Ernie Blandin pointed out that the use of molten salt underground in the geothermal process may cause damage to the aquifer. And Welker added wind in Bowie is too light and variable, and then too gusty, causing damage to the equipment.
Solar, Brown said, was going to be a part of the IGCC proposal.
"Is it that if we can't have geothermal, solar or wind, we get nothing?" Brown asked. There is an employment problem in Bowie - our kids that graduate have three options: run drugs, run illegals or leave town and get a job. What to we do, just die?"
"We have a chance to have something here. And they want to stick a pin in my bubble," Brown said.
Blandin said he hopes people don't listen to the misinformation anymore, adding he feels "coal-fired" is not an accurate term for IGCC (gasified coal is proper). "If they are going to pop the bubble, at least it should be an honest pin."