Communities are cautiously optimistic about future of Air Force bases

David Fettig | Managing Editor

Published June 1, 1990  | June 1990 issue

Last summer, over 100,000 people attended Ellsworth Air Force Base's annual open house and air show, bringing a considerable amount of disposable income to the Rapid City, S.D., area.

And, in a city that receives 20 percent of its retail sales from the tourism industry, every special event makes a difference.

But this year the merchants of Rapid City and surrounding communities won't be able to count on the air show. At a time when Washington policymakers are considering cutbacks on such items as billion-dollar warheads and stealth bombers, the belt-tightening has begun to hit home: Earlier this year, officials at Ellsworth announced the cancellation of its annual air show in order to save the projected $30,000 cost.

"When you look at the cost of putting together an open house with displays, air shows and jump demonstration teams, the cost becomes too expensive in light of today's budgetary climate," Brig. Gen. Robert Marquette Jr. said in a prepared statement to the media. Marquette added that while he regrets the negative economic impact of the decision, he assured local officials that the base is planning a full-scale open house for 1991.

West to east, communities wary of spending cuts

While $30,000 is small potatoes when it comes to military funding, the above example alludes to the apprehension felt by communities throughout the Ninth District that have an air base in their proximity. In a district that had as many as eight Strategic Air Command bases within the past 25 years, five remain: Ellsworth; Malmstrom Air Force Base (AFB), Great Falls, Mont.; Minot AFB, Minot, N.D.; Grand Forks AFB, Grand Forks, N.D.; and K.I. Sawyer AFB, Marquette, Mich. In addition, many communities benefit from smaller installations of National Guard and military reserve units.

Even though none of the Air Force bases is on any proposed "hit list," retail businesses and construction companies wonder if personnel reductions and building freezes will affect their bottom lines.

"We're optimistic, but we're less optimistic than before," says Tim Ryan, chairman of the Great Falls Committee of 80, a group of businesses formed in the late 1970s to lobby for increased military spending at Malmstrom AFB. Plans to add a new squadron wing are in doubt at Malmstrom, and a building freeze continues.

In Grand Forks, where 400 military personnel have been lost to early retirement in the past year, according to Mayor Michael Polovitz, city officials are concerned about the future size of the base population, but they have no doubts that the air base will remain open. Earlier this year, Grand Forks AFB had a hiring freeze on civilian employees and a freeze on new construction.

The executive vice president of the Minot Chamber of Commerce, Bud Olsen, says he takes everything he hears about military plans with a grain of salt; nonetheless, he says Minot AFB is in good position to receive a B-2 bomber squadron, depending on the plane's eventual deployment level. Also, of the 300 minuteman missiles in North Dakota, 150 lie within a 70- mile radius of Minot, and Olsen says, as long as those missiles are there, a strong military presence will always be necessary.

"The big questions at the air base are not near term," says Al Raymond, director of the Upper Peninsula's Small Business Development Center, about Sawyer AFB near Marquette. Lt. Col. Gerald L. Kasten, commander of Sawyer's comptroller squadron, would probably agree with Raymond on that point. "The days of the big emphasis on the military build- up appear to be over," Kasten said in a recent speech before a local group, "yet many of the projects started during President Reagan's administration will continue to benefit the U.P. for years to come."

In Rapid City, they don't view the canceled air show as a harbinger; rather, the community remains upbeat about the air base's future, according to John Schmit, Chamber of Commerce president. Schmit said he believes Ellsworth, which holds one-third of the nation's B-1 bomber fleet and is the site of a new warfare training school, will be one of the Air Force's "core bases."

"Ellsworth has been the most stable component of our economy for a long time," Schmit said, adding that the air base contributes 20 percent of Rapid City's $1.6 billion annual retail sales — the same amount as tourism.

Also, Schmit said he can't imagine that military planners would spend so much money in recent years at Ellsworth, only to later cut back at the base. At a time when most other bases in the Ninth District have building freezes, Ellsworth is preparing for a flurry of construction activity, including 850 housing units on base and 200 units in Rapid City, along with a new on-base commissary, shopping complexes, hangars and a runway. All told, nearly $127 million in new construction is planned over the next three to five years.

Ninth District bases likely to maintain status quo

Other military site communities would like to report similar plans, but given the budgetary atmosphere in Washington, most would be happy to simply maintain the status quo. All Ninth District city and military officials contacted for this story say that to the best of their knowledge the military bases in this region will remain open after the current round of budget negotiations and that the bases will not suffer major cutbacks.

National analysts agree. Strategic defense — including the bomber wings and land-based missiles — is the mission of the Ninth District's large air bases. Unless major and unforeseen treaties are signed in the coming years, wholesale abandonment of this nation's strategic nuclear capability is unlikely.

However, bases may not necessarily go unscathed. James Morrison, vice president for policy of the Business Executives for National Security, is somewhat pessimistic about the ultimate size of domestic Air Force bases. "It looks as though the priorities of the Air Force appear to be geared toward large hardware items," he said. "Given that, something has to give. I would not be at all surprised to see the bases shrink [in population]."

On the other hand, Steven Malin of the Conference Board's Economic and Business Environment Program, says that while every base across the country will be affected by any forced reductions in personnel levels, domestic bases may also benefit from the return of personnel from closed overseas bases.

Short-run realities vs. long-run expectations

While businesses and communities that depend on military spending are concerned about the potential negative impacts of budget cuts, a recent Congressional Budget Office study suggests that cuts in defense spending, with resultant lower taxes and increased productivity, should raise the country's standards of living.

"A reduction in military threat would allow the United States to spend less of its resources on defense without suffering increased security risks," the study says, "... which would permit citizens to use the peace dividend for higher consumption or personal saving."

Notions linking decreased defense spending to increased standards of living may make sense, according to the U.P.'s Al Raymond, but they're still hard for military site communities to swallow. "In the long run, I suppose it's better not to have them [Air Force bases]; but, of course, in the long run we're all dead."