Municipal staff appear to have found a site to move the Longview Fire Department training field and burn house out of a Stamper Park neighborhood.
Yearslong efforts to move the fire, railcar and hazardous materials training equipment out of the densely residential neighborhood were boosted when voters a year ago approved a bond package that includes more than $2 million for a new public safety training center.
But some residents who live near the training facility say the move is too late, citing suspicions that smoke from exercises over the years has contributed to or caused various health problems.
Longview Economic Development Corp. directors recently agreed to convey 91 acres of Longview Business Park property to the city for a new training facility for fire and police personnel. The conveyance is pending review by LEDCO and city attorneys.
The property is east of South Eastman Road and southeast of Van Street in a heavily wooded area that is far less populated — though not completely desolate — compared with Stamper Park.
The property was given to LEDCO many years ago. About 56% of the proposed site is classified as a flood plain, and several high-voltage electrical and gas lines cross it, making economic development improvements cost-prohibitive, said city Public Works Director Rolin McPhee and LEDCO President/CEO Wayne Mansfield.
“The property we’re talking about wasn’t part of the original Longview Business Park,” LEDCO Board Chairman John Martin said. “This land was either gifted or donated at some point.
“I think it always looks good any time you can support the city, and especially with all of the complaints over the years about the facility in Stamper Park with those communities, to get that away from communities in the future, I think is a huge enhancement for us,” Martin said.
Two homes are on Van Street near the proposed site, but Mansfield said “there’s plenty of vegetation and trees there that they can buffer.”
Councilman Wray Wade, whose District 3 includes the Longview Business Park, lauded the move because it would place the public safety training grounds on a significant thoroughfare on Eastman Road and near the city’s major thoroughfare, Interstate 20.
“I’m excited about it,” Wade said. “I’m a big advocate of urban development being along the major thoroughfares through the city, and Interstate 20 is that major thoroughfare, so I’m always excited about anything that happens along Interstate 20.”
Wade also noted police and firefighters would have easy access between the training grounds and all parts of the city using North Access Road to get to Loop 281.
Longview Fire Department has operated the fire, rail car and hazmat training for several decades at Park Street next to Stamper Park. The facility allows Longview — along with corporate sponsors such as Union Pacific, Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Trinity Rail Co. — to operate one of only two tank car schools in the nation, attracting firefighters from the U.S. and Canada.
Some training exercises involve smoke that sometimes emits into the surrounding neighborhood.
For John Dixon, who lost his mother to breast cancer last year, the news of the move comes as little comfort.
“It’s too late for them to move it for me,” he said. “It needs to be in the woods, out of the city limits. You have people who are on oxygen tanks. That ain’t good.”
Dixon, District 2 Councilwoman Nona Snoddy — who is his sister — their father William Wilkerson and other people who’ve lived near the training center say they’ve known many neighbors and family members diagnosed with or who died from respiratory illnesses or cancer.
But they have no direct link between the diagnoses and the training center.
“I can go up and down the street on Park Street, and I can identify people who have died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or cancer or some other respiratory illness over the years,” Snoddy said, adding that her sister was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Wilkerson has COPD, though he was once a heavy smoker who retired from a steel plant.
“Well, depending on what kind of conditions people have got in this neighborhood, that COPD and all that kind of stuff, it’s pretty rough,” Wilkerson said. “I’ve got it myself. It gets pretty rough at times.”
On Callen Henson’s front door is a sign warning people not to smoke because she uses an oxygen tank. At her back door is the training site, where Snoddy said a fire once broke out that burned part of her backyard.
“They would do the fire, and they wouldn’t let anybody know that they were out there at 12 or 1 o’clock in the morning, and they didn’t tell nobody that,” Henson said.
At one time, Henson, who is asthmatic, joined several neighbors at Longview City Hall to complain about the training facility.
“They just weren’t respecting the neighborhood,” she said, adding that from that time forward, fire officials better warned neighbors whenever operations were taking place.
“They finally told us when they were going to have it so that I could get up and leave my house to go somewhere,” Henson said.
As for news that a new location had been found, Henson nodded next door and commented, “It’s a blessing, because this lady over here, her son was asthmatic.”
Vernell Sebron, also an oxygen patient, has lived more than 15 years directly across Nelson Street from the training facility.
“It doesn’t bother me,” she said. As for the facility’s expected move from her front door, Sebron said, “It really doesn’t make any difference to me.”
City staff are planning a training field similar to one in Georgetown that includes movable walls inside the burn house so that firefighters can simulate different environments for training purposes. The facility will have an administrative component as well as a driving course.
Fire Chief J.P. Steelman said the proposed site will allow trainers to use Class B materials such as propane, which burns cleaner than the Class A combustible fuels — wood and hay — allowed near Stamper Park.
As for police training, previous Longview Police Department administrators applied several years ago for academy status with the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, Police Chief Mike Bishop said.
“What that means for us is we do our own training in house and report directly to the state on training our officers,” he said, “and we can open it up to other officers to come and pay a tuition fee to and help us replenish our funds to help training our officers better.”
Snoddy remembered times during her childhood when she would see firefighters surrounding the smoke-billowing burn house next to children playing in Stamper Park.
“They would have masks on — we didn’t have masks — going in to the smokehouse,” she said.
Snoddy expressed gratitude that significant moves are being made to rid the neighborhood where she grew up of the training facility, not to mention bond-supported improvements to Stamper Park and the adjacent Womack Field as well as construction of a new police station nearby all within the next three years.
“I’m grateful to God that it is being moved. It is overdue, and I’m grateful to other people on the council before me have had the same battle,” Snoddy said of previous District 2 representatives Gary Smith, Charlene Draper and Daryl Williams.
“As a member of City Council, I have great pride in Longview having one of only two such training schools in the nation,” she said. “I get that, but needless to say, I wish it had been in an area that is not residential.”