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Air Force F-16 decision brings early Christmas to North Pole, Alaska

National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

FAIRBANKS -- North Pole Mayor Bryce Ward said there’s a palpable feeling of relief in his community and across the Fairbanks-North Star Borough because of news that the F-16 fighter jets are to remain at Eielson Air Force Base -- and not be moved to Joint Base Elemendorf-Richardson.

For the past two years, the prospect of losing thousands of jobs has been a threat to the economic future of the Fairbanks area and especially North Pole, which is about eight miles from Eielson on the Richardson Highway.

Something similar occurred in 2005, when the Air Force announced plans to move all of Eielson’s jets elsewhere and draw the base down to part-time operations. Home prices and job prospects took a dive after the Air Force said cutbacks would save the government hundreds of millions a year. Alaska leaders challenged the numbers and organized in opposition.

But just as happened eight years ago, Eielson won a reprieve after a prolonged political battle that seemed hopeless.

On Wednesday, the Alaska Congressional delegation announced that Air Force officials have backed off plans to transfer the F-16 squadron to Anchorage.

“People are just happy. It’s a huge worry that is off people’s minds,” Ward said of the reaction in North Pole, the town that is home to Santa Claus.

“It’s almost like we got to the end of the tunnel. That journey is now past and people can begin to think about the future in a more positive sense," he said.

There are still plenty of challenges, he added, with energy prices and air quality topping the list, but the Eielson decision was on every mind.

The transfer of the squadron would not have automatically led to a closure of the base, but many people in the Fairbanks and North Pole areas believed that moving the jets would have been the first step toward a shutdown. “I don’t see how you could have a base that has just a handful of things going on and maintain that entire infrastructure,” said Ward.

The worries that calamity was just around the corner have ended.

At the Hotel North Pole, manager Wanda Rubio said the community was overjoyed with the news. “Knowing that Eielson is staying as it is and the hope even for some expansion with the F-35s, this absolutely thrills us,” she said.

Jeff Dickens, the manager of Forbes Laundry, said it never made sense to talk about curtailing Eielson.

“There was too much riding on it as far as I’m concerned," he said.  "It would have disassembled too many families.” 

The pending transfer had hit close to home for hundreds of people in the real estate market. The mayor said the triple whammy of the proposed Eielson move, energy prices and air quality created a “dangerous vacuum” in the housing market. He predicts that people who have been renting or waiting to buy homes will now see a better reason to buy.

Realtor Wes Madden agrees. He said the announcement is good news, though he thinks it should not have taken this long for the Air Force to realize the strategic advantages of keeping Eielson in place.

“This is good news for our market, but it’s bittersweet. There’s been a lot of damage done in the past two years to military families and to the entire community. It’s been a morale hit more than anything,” he said. “When you have an uncertain future and it’s 100 percent out of your control, it’s very upsetting.” 

“In real estate timing is everything, and if I’m in business and I look ahead, I see a lot of good things coming,” he said.

Jeff Cook, the external affairs director at the Flint Hills refinery in North Pole, said the decision means a great deal -- not only to the local economy but also to the many organizations that rely on the talents of thousands of Air Force personnel and spouses -- from youth groups to churches and schools.

The fear of disruption has been replaced by great relief, he said.

Contact Dermot Cole at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @DermotMCole