The proposed moved is expected to save millions of dollars by consolidating resources. The only problem? No one in Alaska seemingly wants it.
The Air Force is conducting a series of public comment sessions across the state to address the proposed move of 21 F-16 fighter jets from Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage. If moved, the F-16s would utilize runways and resources already used by JBER's 42 F-22 Raptors. The process is still in the early stages, with the comments offered by Alaskans this week being used in an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), required before the Air Force decides whether to move the jets. While environmental concerns are addressed in the study, it also contains an analysis of cultural and socioeconomic concerns.
At least 500 families would move
The move is expected to bring more than 500 military men and women and their families from Fairbanks to Anchorage. The prospect of that worries some Anchorage community members who say the state's largest city isn't prepared to handle such an influx. And there's concern that if the base moves from Fairbanks, the impact would be devastating for Alaska’s second-largest city.
A sparse crowd of about 40 people attended the meeting Tuesday night, which was conducted under rigid guidelines. Speakers from the Air Force read from prepared scripts and admitted they wouldn't answer questions from speakers.
Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Malackowski told the crowd that reading from the script was uncomfortable, but necessary in order to be consistent in the five meetings held across the state.
"This is to prove how important it is to us," he said, "and more importantly to you."
About a dozen community members spoke against the proposed move. They ranged from ex-Air Force pilots, general aviation pilots, legislators and union representatives. Many spoke of community concerns about moving hundreds of Air Force personnel to Anchorage area – including a lack of housing, schools, transportation infrastructure and public safety.
Pressure on civilian JBER workers
"(Anchorage Economic Development Corp.) doesn't support growing our economy at the expense of our sister community to the north," said Bill Popp, the group’s president.
One of the more impassioned pleas came from David Owens, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1101. Owens represents the 1,600 civilian employees that work on JBER. He said he's seen no indication from any of the planning documents that more of the workers he represents -- including firefighters and snow-removal crews -- would be added to the base. Because of that, Owens has safety concerns. In 2011, he said, JBER lost 237 civilian employees, with additional cuts of 5 to 10 percent expected in the coming years.
"It's hard to do the job now," Owens said. "The (Air Force) seems to always do something that makes no sense."
Another concern? Anchorage's already tight air space. Merle Akers, 77, has been flying in Alaska for almost 60 years. He spoke of the bottleneck general aviation pilots already face trying get air time in Southcentral.
Akers said he's already seen pilots grounded because of heavy air traffic, and he suspects the F-16s in Anchorage -- on top of the 42 F-22s based at JBER -- would worsen the congestion. Akers was especially concerned for rural residents who need to travel to Anchorage for medical care.
"I hope they've worked over the statistics," Akers said. "It could be a chain reaction."
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com