The occasional reminder is as welcome as it is encouraging - the reminder of all the 148th Fighter Wing means to Duluth and all Duluth means to the Air National Guard base that has been a fixture, a point of pride, and a reason to feel safe in our community for 70 years.
Wing Commander Col. Chris Blomquist offered an enlightening rundown of the Duluth-148th relationship for business leaders this week at a chamber-hosted luncheon inside Greysolon Ballroom. The underlying message: our mutually beneficial support for each other is worth continuing - and soon may be needed like never before.
"We've got a really great connection here with all the folks in the community. You guys really support us well," said Col. Blomquist, a native of Superior. "We're kind of a big fish in a small pond, and we appreciate it. We appreciate all the support."
A big fish indeed. The 148th is Duluth's seventh-largest employer with more than 1,000 members, including about 380 who work full-time at the base at Duluth International Airport. Its $74 million annual operating budget includes civilian and military payrolls of $65 million, much of which gets spent locally. Add the $18 million of jobs in our community that exist only because the airbase exists, and the 148th's economic impact last year was estimated at about $94 million.
"(Its) economic impact is massive," Brian Hanson, CEO of APEX, whose entire business is generating economic development, said as a sponsor of Tuesday's luncheon.
In addition, since 2002, the 148th has completed $133 million of construction projects at its 200-acre base. And, last year alone, its members completed 6,225 "community support hours." Talk about giving back.
One of the big things being based in Duluth gives back to the fighter wing and our military is big-time airspace in which to train. Stretching from Lake of the Woods in the north and west to north-central Wisconsin in its south and east, the 305-miles-long-by-105-miles wide space utilized by the 148th includes 1,000 miles for low-level flying.
"(It is) the best airspace in the entire United States," Blomquist said. "We've got airspace that nobody else has. ... We have a national asset in our backyard. Other than our people, it is that airspace" that sets the 148th apart and aids with recruiting and retaining quality personnel.
The 148th also has "the most capable and the newest F-16s in the Air Force," Blomquist said of his base's fighter jets. "Right here in Duluth, the Air National Guard unit has the best equipment as far as F-16s go."
Added to Duluth in 2010, the Block 50 F-16CM Fighting Falcons won't need to be replaced until the 2030s, Blomquist said. But an upgrade eventually will be needed. No base wants to be the last with aging technology. So a push is expected to start within about a year to bring the latest F-35s to Duluth.
"The F-35 is important to the longevity of the 148th," Blomquist said. "It's just something we want to be out in front of."
That's where community support, led by the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce's Military Affairs Committee, can once again take a lead. The committee and our community lobbied on behalf of the 148th in 2005 when the base here was threatened with closure. We rallied again to help get the latest F-16s here.
So the reminder this week of the mutually beneficial and close relationship between Duluth and the 148th not only was welcome and encouraging, it also was quite timely.