By Sgt. 1st Class Erick Studenicka
Joint Force Headquarters
When the Nevada Army Guard vacated its Ely Armory last November, the keys to the 60-year-old building were literally handed over to City of Ely Mayor Melody Van Camp. Built on donated city land in 1959, the armory and land are once again the city’s property after the Nevada Guard chose to terminate its lease.
Now, Van Camp and the Ely city council have a bittersweet decision to make concerning the landmark building at 545 Mill St. that was until last autumn the only active military facility in White Pine County: What should the city do with a pristine facility that has essentially outlived its usefulness to the military?
“I hate to see it vacant,” said Van Camp recently while working at her sewing shop “Sew Krazy” just a few hundred yards from the old armory. “It’s been a fixture in the park for decades. It’s just always seemingly been there in the neighborhood.
“But we’ve also realized a true military presence in town has been fading. There probably hasn’t been a true military presence in Ely for 20 years.”
Van Camp, whose father Jack Van Camp, 87, was a corporal in the Nevada Army Guard in the 1950s, is just one of many small-city mayors faced with the conundrum of what to do with a vacant National Guard armory.
Almost every state faces the decision of whether to shutter dated National Guard armories that don’t meet Army mission requirements, often because of the same reasons that befell the Ely Armory — a lack of surrounding training space and sub-par security features.
Within the past few years, for example, Alabama closed six armories and Mississippi shuttered four. The mayors in other Nevada small towns with armories are likely keeping tabs on what’s going on in Ely.
Despite the facts the Ely Armory was officially the home of Det. 1, 72nd Military Police Company, last year, and the building is in excellent shape after receiving more than $1 million in improvements in 2012, very few soldiers have actually drilled in Ely in recent years.
Although it only cost the Nevada Guard about $1,500 per month to keep the water and heat on at the armory, even that small expenditure made no economic sense with minimal activity at the armory that cost $128,000 to build in 1959.
The fact of the matter is the belief a small, rural town like Ely — population 4,000 — can support and field a National Guard unit is a bygone, romanticized notion associated with fading Americana just like small towns themselves.
When it was built in 1959, an armory in Ely made sense because the number of drilling Guardsmen residing in eastern Nevada easily matched the number of Soldiers in cities like Elko and Yerington. But since 1960, the population of Ely has actually declined; in contrast, Las Vegas’ booming population has grown tenfold in six decades.
Today, there are just four Nevada Army Guard Soldiers who reside in Ely.
Recruiting and Retention commander Lt. Col. Jerome Guerrero remains optimistic the Nevada Guard can find a receptive recruiting audience in rural Nevada. He’s devoted three recruiters solely to the Silver State’s smaller counties. But he admits it’s hard to overcome the National Guard’s dwindling role in small towns.
“Everybody was in the Guard in small towns to have a getaway from the farm or ranch,” Guerrero said. “Small-town populations, especially in the 18-45 age range we aim to attract, are dwindling because the employment and education opportunities exist in the urban areas.”
Guerrero said the majority of the young, rural adults the Nevada Guard enlists eventually move to population centers to attend the state’s universities.
“Our push now in rural areas is to locate students who wants to attend school in either Reno or Las Vegas and offer them tuition assistance benefits,” Guerrero said. “Then they themselves become urban residents.”
Notably, Nevada National Guard officials were perhaps among the first in the nation to realize the future of the National Guard was shifting toward dependence on urban population centers rather than rural America. After all, they had the foresight to allow the Army Guard’s Hawthorne Armory to become the Mineral County Juvenile Detention Center in 2002 — not even America’s self-proclaimed Most Patriotic City could fully staff an Army Guard unit. (That building now houses the Mineral County Emergency Management office.)
Inescapably, the future of the National Guard is in metropolitan cities with a technology-savvy, well-connected population capable of supporting cyber-, communications- and information-based Army units.
There is a real need for the state-of-the-art, $32 million Speedway Readiness Center in Las Vegas, set to be completed in 2021. The stark juxtaposition to the Speedway center is the iconic Ely Armory in remote, eastern Nevada that has become a monument to an antiquated era of the National Guard.
Van Camp is confident the old Ely Armory will not remain vacant for long. She said there is widespread interest in the building and believes either another government agency will take up residence there or the facility will be devoted to a children’s or youth club or organization.
“It’s a stunning building,” Van Camp said. “It’s in fabulous shape. The National Guard did so much to improve it.
“We just don’t know what to do with it yet.”