Planned cuts at Ellsworth don't scare Rapid City

South Dakota State Roundup

Published July 1, 1991  | July 1991 issue

While many communities around the country fear the outcomes of losing their military installations, Rapid City and Ellsworth Air Force Base officials remain optimistic.

Scheduled removal of 150 Minuteman II missiles and their attending personnel will strip Ellsworth of about 1,700, or 24 percent, of the base's military personnel and 56, or 10 percent, of the base's civilian jobs over the next three years as part of an overall decrease in Air Force positions.

Ellsworth and nearby Rapid City may be in a better position to weather the cuts than some other areas, says John Schmit, president of the Rapid City Chamber of Commerce. In 1989 the Strategic Air Command's 99th Strategic Warfare Wing moved in, and since then about 500 new personnel have been assigned to Ellsworth. "Five years ago we had two wings and no general; now we have four wings and a two-star general," Schmit says. And even with the loss of the missile wing, Schmit is optimistic. During the dismantling of the missiles later this year, it is expected that the base will hire some extra employees. He is also hopeful that the military will retain the missile sites possibly for some future defense project. "Nobody wants these things in their backyard, but they're already in ours," he says.

While Ellsworth Chief of Staff Col. James McKeon wouldn't speculate on the future of the base, he did say, "Ellsworth will be important. We have a viable base here." It looks that way to Schmit too, who cites construction of 800 replacement homes and a new PX and the opening of a new commissary. In addition, special facilities to house a heavy bomber pilot training program have been built to accommodate trainees from around the country and abroad.

But losing 1,700 jobs out of 8,000 is not critical, according to Schmit. "We won't even skip a heartbeat," he says.

Schmit's optimism largely stems from the nearly 1,200 new jobs expected in Rapid City in July. Spiegel of Chicago is opening a new telemarketing order center and hiring about 750 people, and Work Rite, a fire-retardant clothing manufacturer, will employ about 400 more.

Rapid City also has experienced an 18.5 percent increase in population from 1980 to 1990. Now with about 55,000 people, Rapid City is the second largest city in the state. Because it is the only metropolitan area for 350 miles in any direction, Rapid City is a natural hub for medical and transportation facilities, Schmit adds. In addition, with the Black Hills at its doorstep, Rapid City profits from the dollars travelers bring into the economy.

Kathy Cobb