Forces gather to save Eielson

Posted: Wednesday, June 15, 2005

FAIRBANKS - Lots of people around Fairbanks worry about the economic fallout if the Department of Defense pulls more than 2,800 airmen and 3,300 dependents from Eielson Air Force Base. Benny Lin would take a direct hit.

Lin owns Pagoda Chinese Restaurant, and his delivery truck makes hourly trips to the base most evenings. Airmen with cars bring their spouses and children to his North Pole restaurant to dine on moo goo gai pan, kung pao shrimp or Mongolian chicken.

Lin estimates that 60 percent of his business comes from Eielson. He holds little hope that people will drive 14 miles from Fairbanks to fill the void if Eielson is gutted.

"Who is going to drive all the way from Fairbanks to come out for lunch in only one hour?" Lin says.

The Department of Defense last month recommended closure of 33 major bases and substantial reductions at 29 more, saying it would save $49 billion over the next 20 years. Alaska leaders will present reasons why Eielson should remain at full strength on Wednesday when four Base Realignment and Closure Commission members travel to Fairbanks for the first regional base closure hearing.

The BRAC analysis concludes that the net loss of 2,940 military and civilian jobs at Eielson will result in the loss of 1,770 more jobs in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. Together, that's a loss of 8.6 percent of all borough jobs, according to the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Not since Pope John Paul II met President Ronald Reagan in Fairbanks in 1984 has there been such a flurry of community action in response.

The borough quickly appropriated $500,000 to protect Eielson and the Legislature matched it with $1 million more.

State leaders have urged residents to show up en masse at the hearing to demonstrate support for Eielson. More than 40 businesses have committed to closing or operating with skeleton crews so employees can appear. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on Sunday printed a two-page pullout red and white poster proclaiming, "America Needs Eielson Air Force Base."

The Pentagon says it could save $2.7 billion over 20 years by shifting Eielson to a "warm" status - staying open but removing most permanent personnel. The Air Force covets Eielson's vast flying space and would use it to rotate in units from across the country for training sessions.

The proposed realignment is an especially bitter pill in North Pole, where residents have loyally supported Air Force requests such as permanent flying space.

North Pole is between Eielson and Fort Wainwright Army Post and has been a bedroom community for both. Its high school team name is the Patriots and its school colors are red, white and blue.

Jim Dodson, a contractor who heads the Save Eielson state and local task forces, is incensed that the Air Force refuses to release more information on how it made its decision on Eielson. The lack of information has left Alaskans shooting in the dark when trying to rebut military reasoning, he said.

He's also aware that in past reviews the BRAC Commission has backed 85 percent or more of DOD recommendations.

"We're fighting city hall on this issue," Dodson said.

Alaskans on Wednesday will highlight Eielson's position, allowing its aircraft to reach hotspots by flying polar routes.

Eielson is nine hours out from 95 percent of the developed world, said University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton, a former Army major general. It's fair to say Eielson's strategic importance has been underestimated by almost any war-fighting criterion, he said.

The base is virtually in the middle of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and it's near Fort Wainwright, allowing for joint training operations.

Alaskans will make the case that the Air Force has counted the dollars saved at Eielson but not stated the cost to the bases that receive the aircraft and airmen.

"They simply haven't accounted for all the dollars properly," Dodson said.

Underlying the Alaskans' urgency is the economic effects, a matter the BRAC Commission can consider in the second tier of criteria.

The Department of Defense plugged in Eielson's numbers to an economic model that simply does not apply to Alaska, Dodson said.

"They failed to realize that Alaska is in fact a frontier economy," Dodson said, isolated from other regional economies that could help absorb change.

People displaced by Eielson's changes cannot simply drive to another job - unless they're willing to drive at least 300 miles. People who lose their jobs likely will have to leave the state, Dodson said.

He also said the Air Force should pay attention to the area's history of being a loyal host. Alaska has one of the highest request rates by airmen and soldiers, and one of the highest re-enlistment rates, Dodson said. The military is spending millions on recruiting when Alaska bases already are advertising dollars well spent, he said.

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