On the outskirts of North Pole, about 10 miles along the Richardson Highway from Eielson Air Force Base, sits Little Richard's Family Diner. Customers chow down on the restaurant’s many specialties, including buffalo burgers -- but these days, they’re also filled with concern about the base’s future.
“If there's any one topic that's discussed at this counter all day long, that’s it -- people are worried,” said diner owner Edward Richards. “I hear it all day long.”
The Air Force first proposed the transfer of 21 F-16 Falcon fighter jets from Eielson to Anchorage’s Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in early February, issuing a report on “USAF Force Structure Changes” that said the move would “achieve savings in base support at Eielson” starting in fiscal year 2015.
Air Force officials have since said Eielson will continue to have a purpose after the transfer, citing its role in Alaska’s annual Red Flag training exercises, which see “blue” forces fly from JBER in a mock air war against “red” aggressor squadrons at Eielson -- including the F-16s the military wants to move.
Within days of the proposal the state’s congressional delegation moved to block the Air Force’s plan, scheduling a meeting with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz -- and introducing a bill in the Senate that would bar the Air Force from transferring F-16s from Eielson.
Much of Fairbanks has been reeling from the size of potential job losses associated with proposed cuts at Eielson, which Schwartz told residents during a visit would ultimately see the base lose more than half of its 3,200 military and civilian personnel.The F-16 move, which is expected to eliminate 81 duplicated positions, will take more than 500 pilots, mechanics and support crew from Eielson. Add in their spouses and children, and well over 1,000 people could be leaving the Interior.
Back in North Pole, people say Eielson and Army installation Fort Wainwright are among the major economic pillars of the region.
"I think about 80 percent of my business comes from the bases absolutely, or are employed by the bases, so it would drastically affect my business," Richards said. "It's going to be affecting us big time if they do take them out."
It's a concern echoed by Jerry Koener, who manages the Beaver Lake Resort and its three buildings containing 56 apartments. The $3 million project depends heavily on Eielson for business.
"This unit here would be an example of what would happen if Eielson should leave: we would have units perfectly new, no tenant," Koener said, describing one of the resort's apartments. "About 45 percent of our tenants are military associated with Eielson, so we realize that a number of those will be affected."
The Air Force says moving jets and jobs to JBER is all about budget-cutting. Brig. Gen. Mark McLeod, who visited the state in April to study how the move should be made, says the decision was made on a fiscal basis.
"From the aspect of the president's budget, we're tasked in this process to move the airplanes to JBER," McLeod said. "We share efficiencies when we bring like units together."