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The Peoria Journal Star May 12, 2005

Officials hopeful, nervous on base closures

List announcement expected Friday

By Andy Kravetz

PEORIA - Now that the politicking is over, local and state officials must wait until Friday to find out whether the Illinois Air National Guard will take a hit.
That's when the Pentagon is expected to announce its recommendations to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission on which bases to close and which units to move. For more than a year, Peoria and Springfield officials have worked to keep the 182nd Airlift Wing at the Greater Peoria Regional Airport and the 183rd Fighter Wing at the Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport off that list.

"I am as comfortable as I can be two days before the announcement that we have done our job well and that the 182nd will not be on the list for closure," said Rob Parks of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce.

Added U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria: "All we can do is keep our fingers crossed, and hope and pray that all the hard work that we have done will pay off and keep the units off the list."

Friday's announcement isn't a death knell. The BRAC will hold hearings in Washington, D.C., and throughout the United States to discuss the recommendations. President Bush will likely receive a list of recommendations from the commission in September. Neither he nor Congress, which will ultimately vote on the matter, can make changes to that list.

John Pike, a defense analyst at GlobalSecurity.org, a nonpartisan defense and research organization in Alexandria, Va., says he has "no clue" of what might happen Friday. Unlike previous rounds of base closings, this year's BRAC has not made public any of its priorities.

But he also said he doesn't think units like the 182nd or 183rd will be targeted.

"The fundamental reality is all those people have day jobs," he said. "If you want to keep them in the Guard, you have to give them a place to drill on the weekend that is easy to get to. If they have to drive across town to drill, they will do it. If you make them drive across the state, they wouldn't do it.

"That's why I don't think there will be a lot of closures of Air Guard bases."

Still, local officials didn't take chances. They hired consultants, flew to Washington, met with Department of Defense officials and talked up the Illinois Air National Guard. Attorney General Lisa Madigan has even threatened to sue the government if they try to shutter either the 182nd or 183rd.

LaHood notes the roles both the Peoria and Springfield units have played in recent years. Peoria's C-130s were among the first to land in Baghdad in the early days of the Iraq War, and a Peoria-based C-130 flying in humanitarian relief to earthquake victims in 2003 was the first military plane to land in Iran in more than 20 years.

Springfield's F-16s have been deployed to Afghanistan.

Jim McConoughey of Heartland Partnership said Peoria is different from many other communities across the country that also are fighting to save their installations. There aren't many other military bases in the area, so the facility is important from a homeland security aspect.

"It creates a safety net for a lot of cities and areas that are not otherwise equally as protected," he said.

Other issues are recruiting and the ability for the base to expand and take on new missions. Already, there are areas for pilots to practice dropping supplies and for firefighters to train in very realistic situations, he said.

Solomon Balraj, the Greater Peoria Regional Airport director, said losing the 182nd would mean more than just an empty facility. Rather, he said, the airport's police and fire departments do annual disaster drills with the Guard members.

Additionally, the unit helps provide security by monitoring the fence that spans the property.

"We have a memorandum of understanding with the Air National Guard. They provide us with emergency fire and rescue services," Balraj said. "We do have our own fire and police, but we don't have the complete staffing. We rely on them being here 24 hours to augment our staffing."

Having the 182nd in Peoria has also allowed the airport to expand and have the longest runway outside of Chicago in the state, he said.

"The pavement structure can handle the largest aircraft in the world, and all that is there because of the 182nd," he said. "Peoria is the benefactor of that. Having that base there, we got all that wonderful airfield improvement which will help us and continue to help us in growing our commercial air traffic."