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Ryan Johnson, Grand Forks Herald , Published May 20 2012

Grand Forks Air Force Base reports lower economic impact after tankers leave

GRAND FORKS - The economic impact of Grand Forks Air Force Base continued to slip in fiscal year 2011, when the number of active duty military members at the base dropped to its lowest levels in decades.

There were 1,204 of them, a 17 percent reduction from fiscal year 2010 and about half of as many as were stationed at the base in fiscal year 2006.

Base officials released the latest economic impact report earlier this month, pegging total impact at $189.3 million, a 29 percent reduction from the year before and 46 percent less than five years before.

It’s a clear sign of the impact the base’s realignment. The last of the KC-135 Stratotankers departed at the beginning of fiscal year 2011, bringing to an end a 50-year air refueling mission. The fiscal year also saw the arrival of the first of the RQ-4 Global Hawks, marking the start of the unmanned aircraft system mission, however.

John Schmisek, Grand Forks County Commission chairman and a member of the area’s Base Realignment Impact Committee, said things could soon start to turn around as the new mission expands.

“We hope to see those kind of start to go back up slightly,” he said. “I think we’re probably at the bottom of what we would call the ‘bathtub effect’ of the realignment,” he said referring to the big dip on a graph of base personnel.

The base has already seen a slight bump in its staffing numbers since Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

Base spokesman Tim Flack reported 1,236 active duty military members are stationed at the base this week.

A key part of the base economic impact is the jobs created directly and indirectly by the base, and in that regard the impact has not changed greatly since fiscal year 2010.

There were 2,275 direct jobs, including active duty military personnel, and 809 indirect jobs created by the base in fiscal year 2011, the report said. The total payroll of those 3,084 jobs was $117.1 million.

In fiscal year 2010, the base reported 3,164 total jobs with total payroll of $117.1 million.

Compared this with fiscal year 2006, though, and the declining impact is clearer. There were 4,571 total jobs with total payroll of $162.6 million that year.

Much of the diminished economic impact of the base can be explained by the costs associated with its air refueling mission. In fiscal year 2008, the base spent $172.2 million on fuel — nearly 40 percent of that year’s total economic impact of $433.9 million.

Those costs have since declined as the tanker mission came to an end; the base spent just $10.8 million on fuel last year.

The base also spent $95.7 million from 2008 to 2010 on construction projects to modernize its infrastructure and prepare for the new UAS mission. That averages to more than $30 million spent for each of those years. Just $9 million was spent on construction in fiscal year 2011.

Schmisek said community officials and the BRIC group remain focused on helping the base rebound to the larger impact it enjoyed just a few years ago. Part of that effort is continuing to lobby for the base to be selected to host the new Air Force tankers, which he said would give it two important missions and make it as active as possible.

That used to be the norm for Grand Forks Air Force Base, when it hosted both the tanker wing and a Minuteman missile wing in the 1990s. In the second half of the 1960s, it hosted a squadron of F-101 interceptors, a B-52 wing that included tankers and a missile wing.

Still, Klaus Thiessen, president and CEO of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp., said the big picture can easily be forgotten when comparing the latest figures to the years before the tanker mission ended.

“The bottom line is $189 million is still a lot of money from an economic impact standpoint,” he said.

Schmisek said the base continues to play a “very, very important” role in the region, and not just for the amount of money it brings to the local economy.

“The airmen and the airwomen that we have at the base are as critical to us as the economic impact,” he said. “They add so much to the area here. They’re just good neighbors, and as a community, we want to keep them as neighbors.”