Sawyer AFB says, 'goodbye B-52s, hello new tenants'

Michigan State Roundup

Published April 1, 1995  | April 1995 issue

When the last B-52 bomber left Sawyer Air Force base this winter, it symbolized the end of the Air Force's presence in the central UP (Upper Peninsula). The departure also marked the beginning of a new era.

The Sawyer Base Conversion Authority, left with 5,200 acres of former military land and buildings, already has begun to fill those vast spaces; three firms are committed to moving or starting their businesses at Sawyer.

  • Boreal Aviation Inc., a new private aviation business, expects to begin operations in July and will be the first reuse of the airport runway and aircraft maintenance facilities.
  • Senco Inc. manufactures ice fishing shanties and deer blinds and will likely be the first tenant once the Air Force approves the lease. The company will dramatically increase its space and probably double its work force to 16 as a result of the move.
  • Marplex Industries, a manufacturer of small vehicles used in mines and airports, will consolidate from two locations and expand its manufacturing space, allowing it to grow from 20 to 65 workers.

While the leasing process takes about 120 days, all three companies are expected to be operating before the final military departure in September, according to Steve Bush, director of economic development for the Conversion Authority. And another 15 or so leases should be in place by the closure date, Bush adds.

Nearby communities like Marquette have expressed some concern over the authority luring businesses away from their cities, but Bush says that isn't happening. Companies that express interest in moving to Sawyer are doing so because they need room to expand, he says, such as Senco and Marplex.

Some larger plans regarding reuse of the base are also under discussion, including:

  • Using some base facilities for a military-style academy designed for Detroit area youth before they get into trouble. Supported by several Detroit area nonprofit organizations and communities, the school would use the base's dormitory housing and hospital, and the nearby Gwinn school district could supply academy classroom staff. That would be a boon for the 30 percent of Gwinn teachers laid off as a result of the base closing. Projected academy growth could eventually bring its staff employment up to 800, Bush says.
  • Moving the Marquette County airport. Sawyer is the newest major Air Force Base in the world, Bush says, with a modern air strip and control tower. The drawback is that construction of a passenger terminal and a service road would cost about $7 million, about half the amount eventually needed to upgrade the existing Marquette airport. But an airport on the base would be an additional advantage to new or relocating businesses.
  • Leasing land and buildings to regional Indian tribes for housing and commercial use. Discussions are under way with several tribal leaders about reuse of base housing, as well as using some other buildings for light manufacturing and gaming.

"It's important to bring groups here who have the financial resources, whether they're public or private," Bush says.

Kathy Cobb