Inside a nondescript former Air Force lab in east Mesa, national defense work occurs at such a classified level that officials hesitate when answering questions about the facility.
One structure in the 10-building complex is sheathed in copper to thwart electronic spying, symbolic of how so much about the lab is shrouded in secrecy.
Only four other labs in the nation share this high level of security, some officials say even as others decline to confirm that.
The lab is set to close in September, which would normally end the security clearance. But everybody involved with the lab is talking about how they are working to convince the Air Force to extend the security clearance so the complex can offer academics and companies a powerful reason to locate there. That status is seen as something that gives the lab statewide or even nationwide importance in being a hub of defense and security research.
A plan is underway to keep some of the lab's 200 employees while Arizona State University, Mesa and a private defense contractor work to reuse and expand the site at the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport.
The lab could boost Arizona's $3 billion defense and aerospace industry, said Werner Dahm, director of the Security and Defense Systems Initiative at Arizona State University.
"We believe there is a tremendous potential to increase that," Dahm said.
Dahm is a former chief scientist of the U.S. Air Force, who left the Pentagon for ASU in 2010. He said too much is made of the lab's security status, as the military is simply protecting proprietary knowledge the way any private business would. Much of the work is unclassified, Dahm said, but he said the lab is significant for its potential to attract related defense work and new jobs.
The Air Force announced the lab's closing in 2005, and this year it will move the work and some of the employees to the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Some employees will prefer to stay in Arizona and search for similar jobs here, but Mesa doesn't yet know how many will remain, said Patrick Murphy, an economic development project manager for the city. "Our goal is to try to maintain as many of those jobs there and maximize the reuse of that facility," Murphy said.
The city is in a race against time. The security clearance goes away when the last employee leaves, so Mesa must get at least interim agreements in place by September. The Air Force only made the facility available to Mesa last year, though it usually takes years to navigate the maze of federal bureaucracy required for the handover to occur.
The city hired consultant Barry Steinberg to assist. He acknowledged some frazzled nerves because those involved know that a loss of security status could undermine the lab's special status and drawing power.
"If I use the word anxiety, I think it's an understatement," he said.
The lab's employees work on warfare readiness and those who want to stay in Arizona would be attractive to private employers because of their specialized skills, Dahm said.
"Tremendous research work has been done over many, many years at that site and we have the opportunity to step up and continue that mission and to grow it in a very big way," Dahm said.