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Sawyer control shifts to Marquette County; conversion continues

Michigan State Roundup

April 1, 1997

Sawyer control shifts to Marquette County; conversion continues

The former K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base, south of Marquette in the Upper Peninsula (U.P.), continues its transition from military facility to civilian community with a recent surge of activity.

Marquette County assumed control over the conversion and development at Sawyer April 1; previously the Michigan Jobs Commission was responsible. Sawyer may become an independent political entity within the county eventually, says Steve Powers, Marquette County administrator. But that won't occur until the base becomes an established community in its own right. For now, infrastructure improvements are necessary and some buildings stand empty.

Projected costs for improvements to the airport, base buildings and infrastructure amount to approximately $15 million. However, some of the county's costs will be covered by the Air Force's caretaker maintenance program, and the governor has recommended that the state appropriate $300,000 for Sawyer redevelopment. "[Sawyer] is potentially a tremendous asset to the county," Powers says. But he adds that the county can't absorb all the initial costs, nor can the current tenants. "Twelve leases can't support over 200 buildings," he says.

Last August the Marquette County Board of Commissioners approved the move of the region's airport to Sawyer, which will occur in fall 1998, once the military airfield is made to conform to civilian air guidelines. The regional airport's location at Sawyer, with its facilities for manufacturing, warehousing and aeronautics businesses, is an important part of the reuse plan, according to Powers. Late last year the first aeronautics business moved to Sawyer: American Eagle Corp.'s maintenance facility employs about 170 and may add another 70 workers in its new location.

As of March, the 12 companies operating on the base employed about 200. In addition, a $28 million state-of the-art sawmill is under construction and is expected to employ about 80; another six business tenants are expected in spring.

But to reach the goal of making Sawyer an independent community in the county, other parts of the former base need to be redeveloped, such as the 1,600 units of base housing. About 50 families from the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa currently occupy base housing under a government conveyance law that has given the tribe control of more than 270 units. "It's good to have a partner as strong as the Sault Tribe," Powers says. The tribe also operates a day care center and a convenience store, and having the occupied housing generates fees for Sawyer's water treatment plant, Powers adds. A local developer has also applied to purchase more than 300 housing units to rent.

Other signs of a developing community are apparent: A local veterinarian moved her business to Sawyer, and one of the two base chapels is scheduled to reopen.

Developing the base's recreation area, which includes a motel, several lakes, an existing golf course, and snowmobiling and cross-country skiing trails, is also on the redevelopment agenda. Base dormitories could be used for youth summer camps, Powers says.

Kathy Cobb

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