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Proposed Military Base Closures Could Devastate Some Communities, Help Others

The Pentagon announcement of base closings around the United States Friday was met with worry in many communities where military installations make a major contribution to the local economy and there are likely to be many political battles over the list in the months ahead. The closing list contained bad news for some communities, but good news for others.

Local governments and business groups near large military bases generally fight long and hard to keep those bases, even if military planners see little reason for doing so. It has to do with the economic impact a base can have on an area.

That impact can be especially great when the community itself is not a large industrial or trade center with multiple employment providers. Such is the case of Rapid City, South Dakota, which, under the Pentagon plan, would lose its largest employer - Ellsworth Air Force Base, home to 24 B-1 bombers.

The loss of the base would mean a loss of 10,000 people from a city of 60,000. Ellsworth also contributes $278 million a year to the local economy. Rapid City Chamber of Comerce Military Affairs Liaison Pat McElgunn says closure of the base would be devastating. "It is really going to be a very difficult challenge to overcome. It is probably going to take the better part of a decade to get back to where we were before it happened," he says.

Not that Rapid City has given up. Mr. McElgunn says the city, through its elected representatives in Washington, will challenge the Pentagon recommendation. "We are specifically going to look at the issue of how does the Air Force justify putting 67 B-one bombers, the entire fleet, on one base, whether it be in west Texas or South Dakota. That just does not have consistency in terms of the contemporary terrorist threat we are looking at in today's world," he says.

Ellsworth Air Force Base currently accounts for two percent of South Dakota's state gross product and is considered the second-largest employer in the entire state.

But Rapid City's loss would be Abilene, Texas' gain, under the Pentagon base-closings plan. The B-one bombers from Ellsworth would be re-located to Dyess Air Force base near Abilene, in west/central Texas. Under the military plan, Dyess would lose some jobs and aircraft to other bases, but would experience an overall gain of more than 300 jobs after the B-1 relocation was complete.

Abilene Chamber of Commerce President Mike McMann says those additional jobs would be welcome. "The net difference is not a tremendous difference, although 317 jobs in a community of 125,000 or so, when you include some of the surrounding communities, is still a significant number of jobs and we are deeply thankful that we have an overall addition," he says.

But Mr. McMann also recognizes the fact that this is but the first step in what could be a long and hard-fought political battle. "This is only a recommendation from the Secretary of Defense. [It is] extremely significant, but there are several actions [yet] to occur, a commission, a presidential acceptance and then Congressional approval, before it becomes factual [takes effect]."

In all, the Pentagon is calling for the closure of 33 major bases around the country and hundreds of smaller facilities as well.