SUMMERSIDE - It was just over 25 years ago, in April when Summerside Mayor Basil Stewart received a telephone call at 5:30 a.m. from a Halifax radio station informing him that CFB Summerside had been placed on the federal government’s base closure list.
“That was the end of my sleep that day and for I don’t know how many months afterwards,” Stewart recalls today. “It was devastating news to me, to the community and to the Island. It was a sad day in our community in 1989.
The base had been the economic engine for the community for decades.
When the announcement was made the base would be closing, the province set a provincial task group to look into the effects the closure would have locally and provincially.
The task force found that four to five per cent of the provincial population would be affected; 33 per cent of the population of the Summerside area would be affected; five per cent of the total provincial income would be affected; and 33 per cent of the income of the Summerside area would disappear.
Arnold Croken chaired the CFB Crisis Centre tasked with dealing with the base closure.
“At that first meeting we held on the Friday evening at the Linkletter (Hotel) after the news broke about what was happening, everyone who was involved in any capacity in the community attended that meeting and it was best described as total shock,” he said. “Once we worked our way through that and people started to put some ideas out in terms of where do we go from here, the plan was somewhat crafted. The plan included staying optimistic.”
Croken said the worst thing the town could do was put government in a corner.
“We had to work with them and from there, things started to take on a life trying, in the beginning to see if we could reverse that decision,” he said. “When that became evident that that wasn’t going to happen we went with what will we do as a result of the closure?
Croken said the community put in many hours trying to help create a plan to offset the loss.”
The community came together with a trip to Parliament Hill to raise their concerns and on Mother’s Day, May 14, 1989, over 8,000 people turned out and marched through the streets of Summerside in pouring rain in hopes of saving the base from closure.
“So many people showed up to march and demonstrate to government that this was a death blow to a community the size of Summeride,” Croken said. “The next thing was when the decision was final and we all flew to Ottawa and tried to put pressure on.”
There was a certain amount of work done behind the scenes to capture the GST Centre for the community .
Croken said a challenge from Ottawa to Summerside was they would put the GST Centre at Slemon Park instead of Summerside unless all of the five surrounding municipalities all agree to one location somewhere else.
That deal was made.
“We had to commit to the smaller municipalities that we would not give up the fight to see something significant happen at the old CFB Summerside site. The rest is history.”
Ret. Colonel Denny Hopping remembers well the day he heard the fate of CFB Summerside.
“I would have been at home when I received a call from CO 413 Squadron Col. Joe Paquette informing me that the base was closing,” he said. “Obviously, I was shocked because having just completed a major plan to build a new mess, and all the steam plant lines had been repaired and we had a big PMQ construction plan on, it really shocked me that they would shut her down.”
Hopping said the move by Ottawa steeled the community.
“What really came out of it was the town putting together its committee to fight the issue and many of us joined that,” he said. “In return they received the tax centre. They received a grant to do something with the base.”
Hopping said the closure of CFB Summerside has been successful in terms of rebounding.
“They did develop industry and we now have a very vibrant aeronautical industry along with a whole whack of other industries out there,” he said.
Hopping said there were between 1,200 and 1,400 military and civilian personnel at CFB Summerside during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“Now we have with the tax centre and the base, not only have we diversified ourselves, where we had one single industry before, we have diversified ourselves into a number of industries and have far exceeded that employment level. It had some very positive effects on the city. Many folks that had to go away to continue to be employed (by DND) have since returned, probably as retirees.”
One aspect of the relationship between the community and the base cannot be replaced.
“We were totally integrated with the sporting programs,” Hopping said. “Our military personnel volunteered their services at the curling club, scouts, ball, you name it. We integrated our hockey programs and our ball programs. All of the sports events were integrated. There was a very close comradery between the town and the base.
“As much as it looked like we were going to go down the tube in this area, the town rallied. Certainly Mayor Basil rallied the town,” he said. “You’ve got to give him that credit. Through his persistence and the committee’s persistence, we’ve come out of it pretty well.”