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A Town Prepares (Again) to Lose its Air Force Base

  • Jim Kent

The Defense Department's list of 62 major military bases to be closed or scaled back includes South Dakota's Ellsworth Air Force base. Located just outside Rapid City, it's one of 2 bases housing the country's B-1 bombers. South Dakota's Congressional delegation has vowed to fight Ellsworth's closure, from both a national security standpoint and because of the impact it would have on the state's economy.

The state's senior senator, Tim Johnson, is determined to do everything in his power to ensure that it is taken off the Base Realignment and Closure Commission's list of recommended base closures. "While we've got to be realistic about the difficulty of the challenge we have to get it off the list," he admits, "our fight to save Ellsworth isn't over by a long shot."

He and South Dakota's other senator, John Thune, have demanded to see the criteria that placed Ellsworth on the Defense Department's defunct list. And they are supporting legislation that calls for a delay in this round of base closures. Senator Johnson insists, "We shouldn't be closing bases at home during a time of war and while thousands of soldiers will be returning from overseas deployments."

He also has concerns about consolidating the nation's B-1 bomber fleet into one place, Dyess Air Force Base, in Texas. "Given the security ramifications that that has, it seems to me to be much wiser to keep our fleet divided in at least 2 places...as we currently have it."

While the military rationale for closing Ellsworth escapes him, Rapid City area Chamber of Commerce president Jim McKeon is most disturbed by the impact losing the base will have on his city. "The troops that are stationed at Ellsworth are involved in our community," he says. "Soccer coaches, bible school teachers, referees...they're just incorporated in the Rapid City / Black Hills community. Fifty-three percent of them live off base in our community. The economic impact in Rapid City and, again, throughout South Dakota, is about $278 million per year."

In a state with a population of just over 700,000, that's a huge amount of money. Surprisingly, though, local business owners are not overly concerned about the possibility that Ellsworth will close. As local realtor Dave Mortimer points out, "this is something that's been going on since the late '60s. Ellsworth is gonna be closing, gonna be closing, gonna be closing. And of course they (the Air Force) shifted out their Minuteman Missile thing and changed over there. They also changed over the B-52 program to the B-1 program and have over, you know, a 30-plus year period taken and gone from being an extremely huge financial resource and economic resource to this region, to being one of just another bunch of things."

That 'bunch' includes the city's medical and retail community, as well as the area's housing industry. It also includes restaurants like the Firehouse Brewing Company, a mainstay in downtown Rapid City for 14 years.

Owner Bob Fuchs says he expects the economic impact of Ellsworth's closure - if and when it happens - will be substantial. But he's confident that the Firehouse, and other area businesses, will survive - particularly if the federal government offers financial assistance to the community. "If we can … bring in new, attractive businesses, then we're going to be far better off in the long run and we can quit worrying about whether we're going to lose our Air Force base or whatever military installation it might be."

Even business owners new to the community are confident in their ability to survive without their Air Force base. Tracey Scott opened Gizzi's Coffee Shop last July, just down the road from Ellsworth's main gate, to give her friends in the military someplace nice to meet.

She says it seemed like a no-brainer that the business would succeed with 95% of her clientele either military personnel or their families. Now, she's not so sure. "I guess I'll know in October," she laughs ruefully. But she has no regrets. "I made awesome friendships and that can't be replaced. As far as the business side of it...well, I'm looking to see for another spot in Rapid City. I have to move. I mean, if they close, I'm gonna have to relocate."

Relocate but, like restaurateur Bob Fuchs, not give up. After all, as Senator John Thune points out, South Dakotans are known for their tenacity. "We will deal with whatever is dealt us. But, right now, we are going to do whatever we can to get this decision reversed and to get Ellsworth off the list."

No matter what the outcome, the general consensus seems to be that the Rapid City community is much better prepared to absorb the impact of Ellsworth's closure than it was 20 years ago.

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