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Prairie Towns Brace for Base Closing's Blow

The reprieve given to a South Dakota Air Force facility in 1995 is not likely this time around.

June 13, 2005|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

BOX ELDER, S.D. — Tracey Scott was discussing the benefits of gourmet coffee in this small prairie town when the cups began to rattle and a deafening roar shook her small cafe.

A sleek B-1 bomber rose from a nearby runway, its engines echoing like thunder as it knifed just overhead.

Scott barely noticed. She just talked louder.

"I always wanted to own my own coffee shop, and I thought this place would bring a little class to Box Elder," she said. "There really wasn't anything nice here before."

So in July, 41-year-old Scott opened Gizzi's Coffee just yards from Ellsworth Air Force Base. In no time, she was serving as many as 200 people a day, most of them military personnel.

But the good times didn't last long. Just a few weeks ago, Scott and the rest of South Dakota got the bad news: Ellsworth is slated for closure.

The state's second-largest employer probably will close within six years, its 29 bombers sent to join the rest of the nation's B-1 fleet at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas.

Box Elder, nearby Rapid City and other communities spread west across the rolling Black Hills are now bracing for the loss of nearly 4,000 jobs, hundreds of houses going on the market and the exodus of more than 10,000 people in a state already struggling to retain population.

"In retrospect, we should have seen it coming," said Rapid City Mayor Jim Shaw.

But people here had long convinced themselves that the base's modern infrastructure, its unimpeded airspace, its role in the war on terrorism and its outsized effect on the economy would allow it to slip past Pentagon budget cutters as it had a decade ago.

And this time, they thought they had a secret weapon in newly elected Sen. John Thune, the Republican who defeated longtime Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle last year.

During the campaign both men claimed they could keep Ellsworth open. Daschle emphasized his long experience in Congress and his successful intervention in 1995 to keep the base off the closure list. Thune said he "had the ear of the president" and believed that defeating Bush's chief antagonist would put him in line for a favor or two.

Daschle lost, Thune won and the base was still tagged for closing.

"Thune came by two weeks ago and met with six of us," said Scott, the cafe owner. "He didn't say anything that made me feel very good. I didn't come away feeling all warm and fuzzy. I left thinking I would have to move if I wanted to stay in business."

Not only would Box Elder, a town of about 3,000, lose a coffee shop, its school system would lose half its students, many from military families. Local businesses that depend on the Air Force probably would shut down.

"I believe they will try their hardest to keep the base open," said Angelique Mills, who owns a sewing shop that makes alterations on uniforms. "About 98% of our business is military."

Her husband, Ruben, believes there is a 50-50 chance Ellsworth will remain open.

"A lot of people think Bush owed Thune for getting rid of Daschle," he said. "I thought Daschle was a strong senator and now Thune is low man on the totem pole."

Rapid City, with 60,000 residents, is the second largest city in the state and home to numerous Ellsworth employees. Many stationed at the base over the years ended up settling in the area when they left the military.

"Losing 4,000 jobs in South Dakota is a big hit when you have just 750,000 people in the state," said Shaw. "The impact will be fairly dramatic in Rapid City but not as much as it would have 10 to 15 years ago. Our economy has become more diversified."

Home to Mount Rushmore and former stomping grounds of Crazy Horse, the Black Hills region is isolated even by South Dakota standards. With just 155,000 residents, it borders rural Wyoming and Nebraska with the nearest big cities -- Denver and Minneapolis -- hundreds of miles away. For years, the major industry was gold mining, then ranching and timber. Now, tourism and service jobs make up the bulk of the employment; plans are afoot to open a high-tech corridor in the Black Hills that officials hope will generate 7,500 jobs over the next five years.

But since 1942, Ellsworth has been a fixture and economic anchor of western South Dakota. It began as a bomber base in World War II then added Titan and Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles during the Cold War.

After the demise of the Soviet Union, Ellsworth lost its B-52 bombers, its missiles and gradually some of its strategic importance. The B-1s, built to fly low with nuclear payloads, arrived in 1987 and took part in the Persian Gulf War and the war in Iraq. It was an Ellsworth B-1 that struck a palace where ousted President Saddam Hussein was thought to be hiding at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Ellsworth has a $278-million economic impact on the Black Hills every year, an Air Force study reported. It has 4,491 employees who have 5,640 dependents. The base is the state's second largest employer after Sioux Valley Hospitals and Health System, based in Sioux Falls.

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