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Bases brace for list

GRAND FORKS, N.D.

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Pinned down in his office Thursday, John Marshall fielded a steady stream of phone calls from residents and reporters wondering about the local Air Force base's odds of surviving the latest round of base closures and consolidations.

Until today, there was little that Marshall, chairman of Grand Forks' Council on Military Relations Committee, could tell them.

After months of speculation, the Department of Defense today will release its list of military bases targeted for closure or realignment.

The wait has created anxiety in Grand Forks, home to an Air Force base that employs about 4,000 airmen and 1,100 civilians.

"There's a tremendous amount of apprehension," said Jim Bradshaw, president of Strata Corp. in Grand Forks.

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Strata, and other subcontractors at the Air Force base 14 miles west of town, stand to lose millions of dollars in work if the base is closed, Bradshaw said.

If the base stays open, Strata will continue providing concrete for the base's $27 million runway reconstruction project, he said.

"If the base were to close, this community and surrounding communities would lose part of its social and economic fabric that's been developed over 50 years," Bradshaw said. "It would be a tremendous loss."

The base, home of the 319th Air Refueling Wing, has a total annual economic impact of about $380 million, including expenditures for construction, payroll, services and other secondary effects, a U.S. Air Force study shows.

The Defense Department's list of targeted bases could be the largest in the nation's history, a cost-cutting process that also worries base supporters in Fargo and Minot. Fargo is home to an Air National Guard base that employs about 1,000 people. The Minot Air Force Base has about 6,000 airmen and civilians on its payroll.

Marshall cautioned Thursday that North Dakota's bases haven't necessarily been spared if they don't appear on today's Base Realignment and Closure list.

"This is a preliminary list, that's all it is," Marshall said. "It's the second quarter and we still (have) a half yet to go."

Today's list will be forwarded to the nine-member BRAC Commission, which can add or remove bases from the list. The commission has until Sept. 8 to forward its recommendations to President Bush.

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The Defense Department didn't include the Grand Forks base in its 1995 BRAC recommendations, but the BRAC Commission later targeted it for closure. Local base backers successfully lobbied to keep the base open. The base, however, lost its missile wing.

The base's fate is common conversation at the Urban Stampede, said Jean-Luc Davis, an employee of the downtown coffee shop.

"People are going to talk about that," Davis said. "You've got several thousand people who work out there and come to town to buy."

Losing the base also would cost Grand Forks a part of its cultural identity, F.D. Holland Jr., retired University of North Dakota geology professor, said while having lunch at a 32nd Avenue restaurant.

"It's nice to have people around from different walks of life," Holland said.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is expected to highlight the BRAC recommendations during a briefing at 9 a.m. The briefing will be televised and the recommendations will be available at www.defenselink.mil .

North Dakota's congressional delegation has scheduled a telephone news conference following the announcement. Voting on the House and Senate floors is expected to prevent the lawmakers from returning to North Dakota to discuss the BRAC recommendations.

Base backers in Fargo, Grand Forks and Minot have collectively spent about $1 million this year on BRAC consultants, economic impact studies and other costs to protect their bases from closure.

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But until today, the Pentagon has been tight-lipped about its recommendations. Key judgments are supposed to be about military value, and free of politics and influence peddling.

"They've really put a tight screw to the information," Marshall said. "The whole thing is nerve racking."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jeff Zent at (701) 241-5526

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