Chamber honors 148th's work for the community
The Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce will honor the 148th Fighter Wing at today's annual meeting and dinner. "These people deploy at the drop of a hat, they protect our country," said Andy Peterson, the chamber's director of policy and education. ...
The Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce will honor the 148th Fighter Wing at today's annual meeting and dinner.
"These people deploy at the drop of a hat, they protect our country," said Andy Peterson, the chamber's director of policy and education. "We're honoring them for all the things they do for the community and the country as a whole."
Today's honor is symbolic of something else -- the strong support the 148th receives from the chamber, community, city and elected officials on the state and federal level. Without that support, the 148th could be sliding into its twilight years now. Instead, by every indication its future is bright.
The chamber created its military affairs committee several years ago, when the Federal Base Realignment and Closure Committee considered the fate of bases across the country. In May 2005 the Air Force recommended that the 148th's aircraft be mothballed starting as early as 2006.
"We would be done; we were on the path to closure," Colonel Frank H. Stokes, the 148th's commander, said earlier this week.
Instead, the chamber, business and political leaders and others from the community rallied to the 148th's defense, and in August 2005 the BRACC voted 8-0 to keep F-16 jets at the base.
While the 148th got to keep its F-16s, they were among the military's oldest, quickly approaching the end of their useful life. Securing a long-term future for the wing required securing newer planes for the base -- one of Duluth's largest employers, with about 1,055 members (of whom about 455 are full-time) and an economic impact of $95.9 million in the federal 2009 fiscal year.
"The base is hugely important to our community," Peterson said. "The jobs are important. There isn't a family in the community that isn't touched by someone at the base."
The players that lobbied to keep the base open continued their work and again were rewarded in February when the military announced that the 148th would receive newer Block 50 F-16s to replace the Block 25s - built in the early 1980s - the wing was flying.
The first of the newer jets arrived in April; the last in September.
"This makes the difference between us closing and flying for years to come," Stokes said. "There are three to four years left on the older jets. The Block 50s will be flying until 2025 or 2030."
Although the 148th has received newer planes, the chamber and other supporters have not stopped their efforts to secure the base's long-term future. The chamber is lobbying the government to post active-duty Air Force personnel on the base to work side-by-side with Air National Guard members, an arrangement known in the military as "active association." The military is trying active association at a handful of bases in the U.S.
In coming years supporters also will work to convince the government to base F-35 fighters in Duluth. In 2008 the Air Force included the 148th on the list of bases that might receive the F-35 Lightning II fighter at some time in the future.
"It's probably too early in the selection process to see how Duluth is doing," Stokes said. "We hoped to be well-positioned so we can compete for the F-35."
Helping position the 148th is the base's recent history of awards and construction. The base has seen $84 million in construction over the past eight years.
"We just broke ground on a $15 million fuel storage facility," Stokes said. "This coming year we will start an $8 million weapons load training hanger."
Recent awards include the 2008 Raytheon Trophy given to the 179th Fighter Squadron, attached to the 148th. The trophy is presented each year to one fighter unit in the Air Force or Air National Guard based on mission performance, exercise participation, inspection results and accomplishments. The 179th was only the fourth Air National Guard unit to earn the trophy since the award's inception in 1953.
The keynote speaker at today's dinner is General Craig McKinley, chief of the National Guard.
"He's the four-star in charge of all the Air and Army National Guard," Stokes said. "We're very honored to have him join us. The fact that he has made time out of his schedule to visit Duluth, Minnesota, sends something of a message that he is a supporter of us and knows what we are doing."