Military Out of Mabry?

A West Austin resident says moving the Texas National Guard out of Camp Mabry would be better for both the neighborhood and military.

An illustration from Edward Bellingrath's Web site,
An illustration from Edward Bellingrath's Web site,

Camp Mabry, home base of the Texas National Guard, has long been an open space where citizens freely came and went; Austinites especially prize its mile-long jogging loop. Like everything else in the world, that all changed after Sept. 11: Public access ended, razor-wire fences went up, and every entrance but one was blocked off.

Mabry's modifications created concerns and headaches for area residents -- especially Edward Bellingrath, who lives near the 35th & Pecos entrance, where massive amounts of traffic, bright lights, and noise pollution suddenly collected. He and other neighbors consulted with Mabry officials and got them to relocate the entrance checkpoint further into the base, and, as of last weekend, issue day passes to joggers and visitors to Mabry's museum.

Despite these concessions, Bellingrath ultimately believes the military should leave Mabry, an argument he details at www.campmabry.com. By transferring the National Guard to Camp Swift in Bastrop County, he says, the state, which owns half of Mabry (the federal government owns the northern half), could then deed the land to the city of Austin, which could then turn it into a public park. "Mabry Park," as the site refers to the camp, "already has hike-and-bike trails, a catch and release fishing lake, jogging track along with parking, and 375 acres of space," and the Texas Military Forces Museum. Bellingrath's Web site provides a lengthy illustrated history of the base, hosts a Frequently Asked Questions section, and a sign-up area to get involved. (Sixty-two people have thus far signed up as "Friends of Mabry Park.")

Bellingrath acknowledges that camp officials have been "somewhat responsive to our concerns." On many issues, however, "The military said, 'We can't do it, we can't do it,' and finally we said, 'Well, why don't you just move?'" He says he is neither pacifistic nor anti-militaristic, despite what some angry e-mailers to the site seemed to think. ("Expand the Base, level the neighborhood! Liberalist PC people need to get out of our way and let us get the job done that needs doing," reads one relatively tame response. Another referred to Bellingrath as a "terrorist.") "I think it would be a better situation for the military, too," Bellingrath asserts. "I think they [the military] are proud of Mabry's history, but after Sept. 11, is it practical to have a base in the middle of town? Back when it was founded, it was out of town. In today's world, it would be better to have it in a safer environment." Noting that the state had previously considered proposals to sell the Mabry land (most recently in 1992), he added, "We're trying to be proactive. I see that it could be developed." Rather than have the land turn into a big strip mall, "We want to head that off, and we have a great opportunity to make a park."

Bellingrath hopes to enlist the support of neighborhood associations for his cause. In general, they are "turning around" on the issue, he said. "By and large, from the public, I hear 'great idea.'" But several officials have indicated they don't agree. The presidents of the Highland Park West Balcones Area Neighborhood Association and the West Austin Neighborhood Group told the Chronicle that they support keeping the base where it is, and are committed to working with Mabry leaders to resolve problems. And Lt. Col. John Stanford, Mabry's state government liaison officer, says moving to Camp Swift is "real problematic."

"Camp Swift is federal property," Stanford said. "We can't just pick up and move there. There is a process to go through to be a tenant." And only a handful of neighbors have complained, he says. "We have reacted as timely as we could. We're really happy about having the neighbors back on the [jogging] track."

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