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The Argus Leader May 8, 2005

Ellsworth in jeopardy

Open spaces help case for survival

By Randy Hascall

ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE - With a resounding roar of power, a B-1 bomber lifts off a runway and streaks across the low sky with the Black Hills as a scenic backdrop. The $283 million fighting machine is surrounded by miles of open space and clear sky.

That uncluttered prairie surrounding Rapid City is a big reason why backers think Ellsworth Air Force Base will stay open.

"There are bases out there literally being engulfed by cities. Planes fly over subdivisions," said Pat McElgunn, a retired Air Force colonel who is director of the Ellsworth Task Force, which has built a case for the base. "We believe our low population is a positive. And we have uncongested airspace."This week, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission - a panel of nine retired military officers, former congressmen and bureaucrats - is expected to receive the Pentagon's recommendations on which of the nation's military bases to close.

Concern that Ellsworth will be included creates a sense of nervousness in the state, much like 10 years ago before the last round of closings was announced.Losing Ellsworth and its estimated $278 million annual effect would be a big blow to the economy. The base is the biggest single employer in western South Dakota, and its future is a political boulder shouldered by the state's top elected officials.

Although supporters say location and sparse population are assets, they also said others could see those as liabilities. Other factors that could make the base vulnerable are the cold climate, a below-capacity number of current military members and a desire by some to combine the nation's two B-1 bases.

"If we didn't have a compelling argument," McElgunn said, "we would probably be a little stressed."Ellsworth, home to about half of the nation's B-1 bombers, survived rounds of base closures in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995. The closures were designed to save money and improve effectiveness following the Cold War.

The Pentagon must release its next list of proposed closings by May 16, but many officials expect the announcement a few days before then. That will be far from the end of the process. The BRAC commission will review that list and can delete or add facilities before presenting a final report to President Bush by Sept. 8.

Intense, costly lobbying

Since 1995, the South Dakota task force has spent more than $2 million in government and private money to market Ellsworth and improve its chances. The money includes $500,000 from the state Legislature, $250,000 from the city of Rapid City and $50,000 from Pennington County.

McElgunn says Ellsworth's remoteness could become even more significant for the next generation of aircraft. Supersonic aircraft need massive amounts of airspace.The base's central-U.S. location provides equidistance to all parts of the nation and also reduces vulnerability to attacks from foreign countries.

The availability of airspace is a priority used to determine which bases should remain open. Other key issues include mission capabilities, availability and condition of land and facilities, operational costs and the ability to meet requirements to support operations and training.

The task force points out that Ellsworth could add at least 1,000 military and civilian employees without making many changes. The base has 5,543 employees, well below its pinnacle of 7,300 in the late 1980s and early 1990s.The facilities have been upgraded with nearly $139 million in new construction during the past nine years. That includes replacement of 250 housing units since 2002.

"By 2008, all the houses will be less than 20 years old," McElgunn said.With 5,769 people living on the base, Ellsworth's population ranks among South Dakota's 15 largest cities. The base encompasses 5,411 acres, equivalent to almost 81/4 square miles. That's a slightly larger area than the city of Huron.

Ellsworth is much like a city. It has rows of neighborhood houses, dormitories, a youth center, teen center and child development center. There are restaurants, banks, gas stations, a military social club and a commissary that sells groceries. The base's recreation and entertainment facilities include a nine-hole golf course, bowling lanes, gym, indoor track, campground, skate park, and softball and soccer fields.

"We're pretty much a city of ourselves," said Tech. Sgt. Brian Jones, a public affairs officer for the base. "We're pretty self-sufficient."Immediately south of Ellsworth are several vacant businesses - a gas station, Taco John's and McDonald's restaurant - all casualties of a project to relocate Exit 66 off Interstate 90 a mile to the east, as Exit 67. That step, completed last year with $10 million in state and federal money, eliminated a concern about encroaching development in what's considered a high-risk area for accidents.

Reshaped after the Cold War

Ellsworth was established in 1942 as Rapid City Army Air Base, a training location for B-17 Flying Fortress crews.

Ellsworth oversaw the Minuteman missile program in South Dakota from the early 1960s until 1991, when the United States and Soviet Union agreed to a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The Minuteman missiles were deactivated and their silos imploded.Today, the B-1 bombers - which carry the largest payload of guided and unguided weapons in the Air Force - are the only aircraft at Ellsworth. They can be ready for takeoff in 10 minutes and do much of their training at the Powder River military range in the area where South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana meet.

John Pike, a national defense analyst who frequently testifies before Congress, said the B-1 is a significant part of the U.S. military and that's likely to continue.

"It played a prominent role in Afghanistan," Pike, director of Global.Security.org, said by telephone from Washington, D.C. "I assume it will be around for decades to come."Ellsworth, one of the the nation's two B-1 bases, has 29 aircraft. Dyess Air Force Base in Texas has 36. The fact that the aircraft is considered the backbone of America's long-range bomber force and that there are only two B-1 bases isn't enough to keep Ellsworth off the closure list.

Pike said there's thought of consolidating resources from two or more military bases to one base. He said it's not evident why there would be a need to do that with the B-1, but it could be done.

Ripples in community

As the Pentagon and the BRAC commission determine which bases should be closed, the economic effect on the area is a lesser criteria than the military effects.

Ellsworth's annual economic impact is estimated at $278 million, according to an analysis conducted by the Air Force in 2004. That analysis uses annual base payroll, expenditures and estimated dollar value of indirect jobs created. The annual payroll is $161 million.McElgunn described the economic- impact estimate as "very conservative."

If the base were to close, it certainly would have an effect on the Douglas School District. Nearly half of the students in that district are Air Force children, McElgunn said. The district has 2,400 students in kindergarten through 12th grade and has a high school, middle school and elementary school near the base. School officials declined to discuss their situation.

John Knight, a Box Elder business owner who was stationed at Ellsworth for a dozen years before retiring, is confident the base will remain open."It won't close. It's a super-important base," said Knight, who owns Knight's Quality Welding in the nearby town of Box Elder. "This place proved itself in the Vietnam War. And we went to Baghdad from here nonstop and bombed them. We can reach anywhere in the world. And it's a heck of a hard place for the enemy to reach."

Knight, a London native who immigrated to the United States, said the base was in deplorable condition decades ago, but is "just plain beautiful" today.

If spared, it could expand

Because Ellsworth is so self-sufficient, its direct economic benefit to many Rapid City and Box Elder businesses is small. Many items, including groceries at the commissary, are sold at discount prices, so soldiers do much of their spending on base.

"We don't see much business from them," said David Dahl, assistant manager of Albertson's Food & Drug in Rapid City. "Things are a lot cheaper out there, so 95 percent of them do their shopping there."Competition to survive will be stiff among the bases. McElgunn said previous rounds of base closings "took the fat out. Now we're down to lean muscle."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday that fewer military bases are likely to be closed and realigned than originally foreseen, in part because of the shift of troops from Asian and European bases to the United States.

He said the percentage of bases closed is likely to be less than half of the 20 to 25 percent first thought.If Ellsworth would close, the state and region would recover, but it would take seven to 10 years, McElgunn said. Redevelopment of the base would be a multi-faceted, expensive project, but not impossible, he said.

If Ellsworth is spared, there's a good chance the base will expand, McElgunn said. In addition to the available space on the base, the Air Force owns 2,500 nearby acres. The water capacity is high, utility availability is strong and utility rates are low.More closings are unlikely for at least 10 years, he said. "Those bases that stay open will, for all practical purposes, grow."

Copyright 2005, Argus Leader