May 13, 2005
The Pentagon announced on Friday that about 180 military bases across the country could be shut down. The Grand Forks Air Force base in North Dakota will stay open, but today's proposal could relocate 2,700 military employees, or 85 percent of the military personnel at the base.
Moorhead, Minn. — North Dakota is home to three air bases. Fargo has an Air National Guard jet fighter unit. The Pentagon's Base Realignment and Closure report says the mission for that base could be re-defined. It's not clear yet what those changes would be. The Air Force Base in Minot will not be affected at all. While the Air Force base in Grand Forks doesn't close, it could see a major change in its' mission.
Cong. Earl Pomeroy (D-ND) says the news is a mixed blessing for Grand Forks.
"The glass is half empty, but half full. Most importantly we have a glass to work to fill up," said Pomeroy.
Members of North Dakota's congressional delegation believe there's still a bright future for the Grand Forks base. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) notes the Pentagon report ranks the military strategic value of the base very high, especially for a new generation of weapons called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.
"There's also the opportunity and the promise in this report of additional missions as we move ahead," said Dorgan. "You can't put an additional mission in a base that's closed. So the fact that they're going to keep this base open because of what they call a strategic value is very important."
The military value of the Grand Forks base is only one aspect of it's importance. The potential loss of more than 2,000 jobs would hit the local economy hard. Sen. Dorgan thinks the Pentagon's report can help the congressional delegation retain those jobs for the region. He thinks repeated references to the base's strategic military value is an important point to stress.
"We happen to be in the flyway to the middle-east, to Baghdad and so on," said Dorgan. "The Grand Forks Air Force base is the closest in the flyway of all the tanker bases to that part of the world which is emerging as one of the very important areas of the world for us strategically. So I think we're going to make a strong case to retain the tankers."
The Pentagon recommendations go to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. The independent commission could change the recommendations and suggest that Grand Forks keep its tankers. Dan Scheinkein, president of the Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce, says it's important for people to remember today's announcement is just the first round in a long process.
"It's not a done deal," said Scheinkein. "Certainly the list is a starting point. We're going to continue to fight to make sure that the Grand Forks Air Force Base survives. Certainly we'd love to have our current mission with re-fueling to remain there. We're going to work hard over the next few months with our Congressional delegation and our governor and other community leaders." Scheinkein says he doesn't see today's report as a forecast of gloom and doom for the base. He notes it will take months before a final recommendation concerning the base is ready. Scheinkein thinks community leaders and the congressional delegation still have a chance to keep the Grand Forks base from losing most of its' military personnel.
"I think it's very positive, very upbeat," Scheinkein said. "The potential is certainly there. As one person said it's nice to be sitting at the table rather than being on the menu."
North Dakota's congressional delegation is already talking with members of a Grand Forks citizens committee on how to keep the air base at full strength.