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TOWN OF NIAGARA – A lot of flag wagging goes on when you are around John Cooper Sr. and family – both in a business sense and regarding service to country.

Cooper’s family has owned Cooper Sign Co. since 1922. It was founded by patriarch Carl John Cooper, who shared his creativity painting sign cards for theaters and stores. The company then grew under his sons Wayne and Harold, who created a number of landmark signs in the area, including the pink elephant on Pine Avenue in Niagara Falls and Page’s Whistle Pig sign on Military Road.

The business has continued under John and his wife, Jennifer. They opened Old Glory Flag and Banner in 1996 at the Porter Road site in the Town of Niagara.

The Cooper family also has been involved in the military for generations, going all the way back to the Revolutionary War. Cooper’s son John Jr. plans to serve in the U.S. Army when he finishes college.

Cooper, who was unable to serve in the military due to medical issues, found a different way to serve both his country and his community as a longtime member and current chairman of the Niagara Military Affairs Council, also known as NIMAC.

Cooper and Merrill Lane, who previously served as chairman, banded together with other Town of Niagara business owners in 1995 to form NIMAC when the Base Realignment and Closure panel began to review the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Base, which is home the Air Force Reserve 914th and Air National Guard 107th Airlift Wings.

When the Niagara Falls base went on that list in 2005, the group became instrumental in rallying the community to save the base. Since that time NIMAC has become a lobbying arm, bringing in more than $100 million to upgrade the base and prevent future closure efforts. Coming soon on the base will be a state-of-the art C-130 training center.

Cooper was also the co-founder and president of the Town of Niagara Business and Professional Association.

Tell me about your business.

Cooper Sign Co. was established by my grandfather (Carl) in 1922, and my father (Wayne) and my uncle (Harold) ran the business after World War II after they came back from the war. In the late ’70s, I came to work here, and about 10 years after that I took over – so I am the third generation. The most famous thing my father did is the pink elephant on Pine Avenue.

That’s quite a sign, and now it’s a landmark

At the time it was Jack’s Used Cars. They wanted something real unusual and asked my dad what he could make for them that was really different. So he ended up going home that night and saw my sister’s coloring book. She had an elephant, and he thought that would be perfect. It was quite an intricate sign and he won a national award for it.

Is your family following you in the business?

No, my son John Jr. has chosen the military for a career. He’s chosen the Army but is still in college and has one more semester to go. I’m not sure if he will be an officer since he will have finished college, but his goal is to be a military chaplain. He kind of grew up at the air base.

You’ve been involved a long time. How did you get involved in NIMAC?

Merrill Lane has been chairman since the beginning. We came into being in 1995, right after the initial action during BRAC at the base when they were reviewed for possible closure. I was vice chairman for all that time.

Why was it so important for you to be involved in NIMAC?

NIMAC is an organization that wants to protect the military installation here for economic reasons and also for social reasons, for what they bring to Western New York. It’s not only that economic engine bringing $180 million a year to the area, but also the social impact we have by having these military members, who I call the ultimate volunteers, in our neighborhoods and in our community.

I don’t know if every city has such a strong advocate for their base in their community.

We do get calls from other communities looking to establish military affairs councils similar to ours. We are known nationally for being one of the stronger military affairs councils. We certainly have had a lot of experience for going through a BRAC. They were going to totally close. The chances of your turning that around is 15 percent. The BRAC commission usually keeps 85 percent of the recommendations they are given. We are kind of in the elite that were able to turn the tide. But it was a community effort. The community really came together.

Since 2005, your group has tried to make changes at the base, but you are not part of the military. How much have you been able to accomplish?

We don’t force anything onto the airbase – obviously it belongs to the Air Force – but where we come into play is that we advocate for the base in Washington, D.C., at the Capitol and at the Pentagon. We keep the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station on the radar. We, along with the local installation, identify buildings and structures that need to be upgraded. There’s been over $100 million of investment since 1995. We have advocated for that through Congress.

Did you think in 1995 that you would ultimately become a lobbyist?

No, I never really did. The things that have happened over the years have been … the people I have met, the friends I have, throughout that period of time have been unbelievable. Some of the experiences of 2005 working with (former) Sen. (Hillary) Clinton, someone of that stature that you never expected to meet, let alone work with on behalf of the base. It’s just been a good experience all the way around.

Are you still worried that the base could return to a closing list?

We are not on a list. There’s not a BRAC process right now, but there are more threats than ever before. The military is in a culture of cutbacks at this time. There’s no secret that Washington is facing financial woes and the military is a target for cuts. Our job is to continue to point to the military value the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station brings to our nation’s defense.

What’s has been done recently at the Air Reserve Station to preserve the value of the base?

The housing is probably the largest investment, but we also have a new fire station. We have the MEPS facility, the Military Entrance Processing Site, where you go to be sworn in for people entering the military. They also do medical exams and tests. We have the new Armed Forces Reserve Center, which was moved onto the base. We have a new firing range and new dining facility. A couple of years ago we redid the runway, which is shared with the NFTA. There’s a partnership with civilian and military that’s really important. The base offers efficiencies to the airport that they could not likely exist without. One of the benefits of winning the BRAC in 2005 is the new terminal, which would not have opened if the base had closed down.

You also have the C-130 simulator coming soon.

That’s a project we are proud of. Ground is supposed to break on that shortly. That project is a good example of why NIMAC continues to work and why we exist. Back in 2008, we heard a rumor that the military was looking to build a C-130 simulator to serve the Northeast, and we called it to the attention of our congressional representatives. Our consultant in Washington began to work on the details, and we were able to capture that facility for the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station. The airplanes on the base are a huge investment for the military, but they can fly them away. But when you get training facilities on the ground, they are a lot harder to move. One of our strategies is to build the facility up. To build the housing we have, which are like very nice hotels, the dining facility, things that allow us to have a training center where crews can come here and train and have nice facilities to stay in. It really was a strategic plan to update the facility so it could be used as a training facility or conference center.

How much of an investment is the simulator?

Between the building and the simulator itself, it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million. That should open sometime in the beginning of 2015. That’s probably the hallmark of why NIMAC exists.

You haven’t served in the military but certainly have served the military.

I won’t get a pension. It really has been what I’ve been able to do. It’s the closest I will ever get.

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For information or to join NIMAC go to www.NIMAC.org

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