U.P. gears for military base closing

Michigan State Roundup

Published January 1, 1994  | January 1994 issue

No amount of petitions signed at the local discount store or money raised through the sale of bumper stickers and soft drinks could prevent the closure of Sawyer Air Force Base.

In June the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission voted to close down the Upper Peninsula's (U.P.) single largest employer by September 1995.

Sawyer, 22 miles south of Marquette, employs more than 3,500 military personnel and nearly 900 civilians, but the spinoff effects of the closing could mean a loss of 4,000 civilian jobs, according to some estimates, leading to a U.P. unemployment rate of 20 percent or higher. And while the civilian jobs may be replaced, Herb Parsons, chief executive officer of the Marquette Area Chamber of Commerce and a member of the base conversion authority, worries about replacing the buying power of those 4,000, not to mention the loss of the $80 million to $100 million spent by military families annually in Marquette.

With 23 percent of Sawyer personnel living in off-base housing, Parsons predicts the real estate market will suffer. In addition, Northern Michigan University in Marquette expects to lose about 500 students and roughly $500,000 in tuition when the base closes. Sawyer students make up about 6 percent of the university's enrollment.

Community leaders across the U.P. already are taking steps to mitigate the effects of Sawyer's closure. Michigan Gov. John Engler created the Sawyer Air Force Base Conversion Authority and pledged $300,000 in the '93- '94 fiscal budget to support the authority's efforts to develop a reuse plan and to review business proposals for the base. Federal dollars will be available to ease the transition, and civilian employees will have access to federal and state job retraining programs.

The Air Force is allowing the authority to be more involved in decision-making regarding base assets, according to Nancy Douglas-Howayeck, chief executive officer of the Menominee Area Chamber of Commerce.

And a group of U.P. economic development professionals, called the Regional Economic Development Implementation team, is lending their expertise to the authority in developing the base reuse plan.

"We've already received proposals, some good, some bad," says Douglas- Howayeck, a member of the conversion authority. "But we're just glad that the interest level is there."

Some early suggestions have involved a regional airport, a prison facility and a US Forest Service Job Corps training center. "The key is getting the reuse plan under way. We want to have a futuristic look, not just a knee-jerk reaction," Douglas-Howayeck says.

"All of us in the U.P. recognize that our economic destiny hangs together," Douglas-Howayeck says. And while the closing has generated dire predictions for the U.P.'s economy, Parsons says, "We're not going to dry up and blow away."

Kathy Cobb