Change may hit Fairbanks hard

Posted: Sunday, May 15, 2005

ANCHORAGE - The loss of most personnel at Eielson Air Force Base would have a major effect on the Fairbanks North Star Borough economy, a state economist said.

A Pentagon closure and realignment list released Friday indicated that Eielson would lose its fighter squadrons.

That would leave Eielson with just the 168th air refueling wing, a National Guard unit.

The Pentagon lists Eielson's loss at 2,821 military and 319 civilian jobs. The dependents haven't been added up. The borough has a population of 85,000.

"That's almost a near-closure of that base," said Brigitta Windisch-Cole, a state Department of Labor economist. "That would have a significant impact."

The impact could be offset by the Army's plan to locate a Stryker brigade at nearby Fort Wainwright, adding 1,500 soldiers, officials said.

Those soldiers, however, tend to be younger than the Air Force population, with fewer dependents, Windisch-Cole said.

Downsizings must be approved or modified by a federal base closing commission by Sept. 8, and then agreed to by Congress and President Bush, which could take six months.

"We intend to work with communities any way we can to minimize the impacts," said Lt. Gen. Carrol Chandler, head of the Alaskan Command.

Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski said he will create a 15-member task force to respond to the Eielson recommendation.

"If Eielson closed, it would devastate our business in North Pole," said Ken Pleasants, who helps manage the three Interior Wendy's franchises and counts anywhere from one to three airmen's children among every 10 of his employees.

Borough school district officials said troop reductions could force the closure of three schools - Eielson Junior/Senior High School and Anderson and Crawford elementaries. The district recently assumed ownership from the federal government of Eielson and Anderson.

"This concerns us a great deal," Superintendent Ann Shortt said. "If we're closing schools because we don't have enough students, that's going to have a big impact."

Realtor Debe Reischke said the news is already making homeowners nervous in North Pole, which has enjoyed a growing real estate market, partly spurred by a strong military presence. On Friday, a client wondered if she should list a house at the lowest possible price to sell it fast before others hit the market.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said the Eielson changes would affect more than the economy.

"The estimated loss of approximately 4,700 jobs, direct and indirect, in the Fairbanks area alone would be a huge blow to that community's economic and social well-being not just from tax revenue or a local business standpoint, but also the number of families that would be leaving, impacting schools, churches, and community services," she said.

Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Jim Whitaker said the borough will deal with the potential loss of jobs in a methodical manner.

"It's clear that it's the first step in a process and it's a multi-year process," said Whitaker. "There is probably some room for alteration. That alteration will be in the hands of a very powerful congressional delegation."=

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