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Christopher Bjorke, Forum News Service, Published March 30 2013

Officials: Commander’s departure shouldn’t hurt base’s goals

GRAND FORKS – Despite a surprise change of leadership at Grand Forks Air Force Base, a handful of regional economic development goals centered on the base should remain on course, according to officials leading the efforts.

“There shouldn’t be any stumbling block,” said John Schmisek, a Grand Forks County commissioner and member of the area’s Base Realignment Impact Committee.

BRIC has a lead role in a plan to lease land from the base for an unmanned aircraft systems business park.

The fact that base Wing Commander Col. Tim Bush was relieved of command for not meeting physical fitness requirements March 20 will not hamper plans for the UAS park, one of three major goals area leaders have for the base, Schmisek said.

Also connected to the base are the potential for a new aerial-refueling mission to be based here and North Dakota’s application to become a test site for the integration of unmanned aircraft into commercial airspace. Neither faces any setbacks by the leadership change, according to officials involved in their planning.

“It will have absolutely no effect on it,” said John Marshall, a longtime leader of base retention efforts.

As the base commander, Bush was well-known and respected among community leaders. BRIC members have written a letter to the Grand Forks Herald thanking Bush for his service.

“Col. Tim Bush – a great guy. We hate to see him go,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who has promoted the aviation initiatives as senator.

He said he was concerned about Bush’s departure but said the work for the initiatives on the air base level has already been done.

“I think he was very effective. He was very committed to it, and people liked him,” Hoeven said. “Most of the work the base commander, the wing commander gets involved with, that’s been done.”

None of the decisions depends on the base’s commander, whoever holds that duty, officials said.

“We’ve been working on it long enough that there’s been a lot of changes of command,” said Schmisek, referring to the UAS park lease.

The base typically gets a new commander every two years, and Bush’s departure was anticipated this summer.

“As a community, we’re used to these transitions,” said Chamber of Commerce President Barry Wilfahrt, a BRIC member. “We already anticipated working with a new commander in May or June anyway.”

Because the military functions with constant changes of assignment, base commanders typically move easily into their role within the community, replacing the outgoing leader, Wilfahrt said.

“The military, kind of by design, is really made up of interchangeable parts,” he said.

Base commanders traditionally support community goals but do not work directly toward them, instead focusing on their missions of overseeing the base. Often they take an advisory role, Schmisek said.

Bush’s replacement has not been announced by the Air Force yet, but interim Vice Wing Commander Col. Christopher Mann has been active in the initiatives surrounding the base.

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