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The Associated Press May 17, 2005

Fairbanks leaders scramble to protest Eielson realignment

FAIRBANKS (AP) - Political and business leaders are scrambling to stop the removal of the fighter wing from Eielson Air Force Base.

Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Jim Whitaker will seek a $500,000 emergency borough appropriation for a consulting team. He's also asking legislators to match that with another $500,000.

The Department of Defense recommended last week that about 2,800 Air Force personnel and 36 fighter aircraft at Eielson be moved to other locations by 2011. That move could cost the Fairbanks area more than 2,000 jobs, according to estimates.

"We're going to leave no rock unturned" in countering the department's proposal, Whitaker said.

"To keep Eielson open - that's our goal," said Norm Phillips Jr., chairman of the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce.

The Defense Department recommendation went to a national base closing and realignment commission, which began meeting Monday.

In September, the commission will give President Bush its own list of proposed military base closures and changes. If Bush accepts the list, Congress has 45 legislative days to reject it or the closures and changes take effect.

The Defense Department contends Eielson is expensive to operate and improve.

Only the Alaska Air National Guard's eight refueling tankers, supported by 580 full- and part-time personnel, would remain at Eielson.

Air Force training exercises also would continue at the base.

Whitaker said the $1 million he wants to spend to reverse the realignment recommendation would buy the services of the most qualified consultants available. He also wants the best legal and economic advice.

"We do not have a choice. ... To do otherwise would be irresponsible."

Firms are lining up to get the business, Whitaker and Phillips said.

"We've gotten a few resumes and e-mails," Phillips said.

"We have a preferred group at this point," Whitaker said, declining to name it. "We have not received confirmation that they are available."

Phillips said he was not sure what the Chamber of Commerce would do.

"We might look to hire someone who would keep the chamber in the loop with the various task forces that are set up," he said, noting he was expressing his own thoughts and not an official chamber view. He said he wanted the chamber's effort to be "positive."

Dean Owen, a co-chairman of the chamber's military affairs committee, said the chamber needs to put together facts to sway the base realignment and closing commission.

The Air Force also proposed to shrink its personnel and jet fighter force at Elmendorf Air Force Base near Anchorage. The overall reduction to Alaska was surprising, given "this general mantra about being focused on the Pacific and wanting to be deployable," said John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org, which maintains a comprehensive Web site on the U.S. military.

"Everybody I was talking with on Friday was surprised" about the proposed Alaska cuts, Pike said. "I don't think anybody saw that coming."

Whitaker estimated the department's plan would eliminate 3,117 jobs at Eielson. That includes 2,821 military jobs, a net 119 civilian jobs and 177 teaching and school administration jobs, he said.

"That's using our economic model, which we know to be very specific to the borough's economy," he said.

Whitaker noted the Fort Wainwright Army Post is expected to gain about 1,375 Stryker Brigade troops over the next 18 months.

"That balanced against 3,000 lost at Eielson is still a significant net loss for us," he said.


Copyright 2005, The Associate Press