Published July 1, 1998 | July 1998 issue
The once empty Sawyer Air Force base is now home to about 40 businesses with over 800 employees, more than double last year's figures; 354 base housing units have been leased to residents; and the relocated Marquette County airport plans to begin commercial operations in summer 1999.
In addition to replacing some of the 900 civilian jobs lost when the Air Force base shut down in 1995, the above numbers affirm the rebirth of an Upper Peninsula (U.P.) community, according to Steve Powers, Marquette County administrator. Interest has been expressed in all 1,600 base housing units and half are committed to developers. When a fitness center recently opened, about 400 people expressed interest in joining, says Powers, adding that a day care center and convenience store also are doing good business.
Those businesses are fueled by an airplane maintenance facility that employs 224 and a recently opened state-of-the art sawmill with 125 workers. The most recent addition to Sawyer is a lower Michigan engineering firm that expects to employ 80 in two years. And a private developer is proposing to use base dormitories and officers' quarters and club as part of a recreational plan that would have the potential for 300 more jobs, Powers says.
Regarding the move of the commercial airport to Sawyer, controversy surrounded the decision, with critics citing increased distances most residents would have to travel (62 percent of residents will need to travel nine miles further to reach the airport at Sawyer). "What it came down to was the economic development opportunities provided by Sawyer," Powers says of the vote to approve the relocation.
That move leaves Marquette County with 700 acres and several buildings at the current airport to fill. Instead of seeing the old airport as a white elephant, Powers says, "This move presents a marvelous opportunity." The county issued requests for proposals for the airport property in June, banking on access to Highway 41 and good infrastructure to draw interest.