FEATURE: Mildenhall businesses share reaction to air base closure
Some Mildenhall traders have built their businesses around the American customers from RAF Mildenhall and RAF Lakenheath - we took to the streets to get their reaction to the closure, and the effect on them and the local area.
David Hines opened Angels Café in Mildenhall nine years ago.
Serving mainly Mexican food, he said a lot of his customers came from RAF Mildenhall to enjoy food they could not get on base. He was on holiday in Slovakia when he heard news of the base’s closure last week.
He said: “It was quite unnerving. We have built our business on Mexican food, we still have RAF Lakenheath but I opened my café where I did because of Mildenhall. If there was no Mildenhall I would have started up closer to Lakenheath.
“I think it will affect the whole area. I know people renting houses to Americans, people who work on American cars and repair them on and off base. There is a whole network of people surrounding it. The troops do fuel the economy in the area, there’s no two ways about it, so them deciding to pull out is obviously not good news.
“You have just got to adapt and change. It was the same principle when we opened the café – you try something out and if it doesn’t work, you change it until it does.”
David, who lives in Mildenhall, believes the base should not be used for housing due to a lack of existing infrastructure in the area.
“If the land is used for housing the town will end up the same as Red Lodge – houses built with no amenities. There is no point in it being turned into housing because the area cannot afford the infrastructure. It cannot be used for industrial purposes unless they build a new road, so in my opinion it can only be reused as an airport.
“I see it having an impact on the majority of people. There are hundreds of other people who work there who come from around here, they are not going to go into local businesses and spend their excess money and it will have massive knock-on effects. What is also worrying is the amount of businesses who do not know how they will be affected by the closure. It may not be such a direct impact, but they will still feel the knock-on effects of people having less money to spend.”
Sue Newlove, 52, owns and manages the Mildenhall Auto Centre with her husband, Vic. Based in Mildenhall since 1988, the garage deals almost exclusively with American customers and specialises in General Motors, Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ford. It is also factory-approved for warranty work.
Sue and Vic have just opened a second unit in Mildenhall, which will deal primarily with ‘walk-in’ MoTs.
“It was a bit of a shock, but a lot of our work comes from Lakenheath anyway,” said Sue. “We deal with military vehicles from Lakenheath too, but don’t seem to get as much trade from Mildenhall.
“We are not too deterred by the news, it is disappointing but we are not devastated. Plus there will be two more squadrons coming to Lakenheath, so that may help us. However, if push comes to shove we will diversify and find work within other areas. We have five to seven years anyway, it is not as though they are all pulling out next week.”
Of the potential future of the base, former Mildenhall resident Sue said: “We are wondering whether Marshall in Cambridge or Norwich airport will take it over, but you just don’t know.
“I think you have to leave your options open. I don’t know what Forest Heath intends to do, but there is a lot of potential for a lot of businesses to go down the pan. A lot of people will feel the pinch more than us.
“The biggest impact is going to be the money loss, because of the revenue that comes from the troops. I know a lot of them do not need to come off the base, but they still spend money in the town.
“There is nothing in Mildenhall to attract people in, which is a shame.”
Paul Webb, 44, has run ‘Webb’s’ Sandwich Bar in Mildenhall town centre for 11 years. He estimates 30 to 40 per cent of his trade comes from the USAF bases.
He said: “We get lots of servicemen and women from Mildenhall. It is a bit far for people to come from Lakenheath for lunch, so even if they put more troops there, it will not help us much. We like having them here, we have never known the town without them, but in a way we are lucky. Some places might specialise in serving Americans, whereas we have all sorts of people. We have several hundred customers in a day, but we do not put all our eggs in one basket.
“I think it will have a big impact, not on the shops so much, but on the restaurants and take-aways, and the street market will also be impacted. It’s going to really hurt the town. Mildenhall is quite quiet, we could do with more shops. There are more and more eating establishments, how many of them are based on the American trade I do not know, but we will still be here. It will be harder, but we will carry on.”
Zen Zawislak and Robbie Surridge have run Fair Price Automotive Ltd, a car sales company dealing exclusively with American customers, for the past 10 years.
Robbie, who has worked in car sales for the USAF in the UK, Germany and Italy since 1993, believes the base’s closure will have an ‘affluent outcome’.
“It is all swings and roundabouts, really,” he said. “Lakenheath will be expanding and Mildenhall will dissolve, but I’ve seen bases close before in Germany. I think there will be a very affluent outcome.”
Zen said: “It is the people who are employed by the MoD who are going to be hit hardest. But I think it will be good for the local rental market– the gap beteen what Americans are willing to pay and what local people will pay is huge, so this ought to push prices down. Landlords won’t be able to be greedy any more.”