Economic development – the kind that brings good-paying jobs to a community, adds amenities to attract and keep young people and improves overall quality of life – is always worth fighting for.
But once in awhile, a project comes along that is so important to a community’s future, it’s worth moving heaven and Earth to make it happen.
The Enhanced Use Lease plan for the southern edge of Cheyenne’s F.E. Warren Air Force Base is one such project. The 74-acre mixed-use housing and commercial development is proposed for the former Cheyenne Frontier Days park-’n’-ride lot just south of Happy Jack Road and west of Interstate 25.
The main reason the EUL is so important is it will help provide much-needed housing for the airmen stationed at F.E. Warren. Current estimates are that between 500 and 600 base personnel live in northern Colorado and commute daily to Cheyenne, mostly because the Capital City doesn’t have enough housing available in the right price range.
That concerns Air Force leaders all the way up to the Pentagon, who want our men and women in uniform to have the best quality of life possible as they serve to protect our nation. Twice-daily commutes to and from work of 45 minutes or longer, sometimes in bad weather, hardly qualify.
It should also concern all of us. After all, these folks are the ones maintaining, securing and monitoring our ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, part of a nuclear triad meant to ward off attacks by countries with similar capabilities. What happens when fatigue starts to creep in?
But if that weren’t important enough, Air Force leaders are in the process of deciding where to place the next generation of ICBMs, which will be built to replace the 150 Minuteman III missiles currently deployed over a 9,600-square-mile area of eastern Wyoming, western Nebraska and northern Colorado. Though Warren Air Force Base is headquarters for the 90th Missile Wing and the five groups that comprise it, there are two other Air Force bases that support this mission – Minot in North Dakota and Malmstrom in Montana.
Some people in Wyoming have the misguided notion that Warren AFB will automatically be the headquarters for the new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD, as the replacement missile system is known. But during a visit to Cheyenne last summer, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson made it clear that how a community takes care of its airmen will be a deciding factor in where missions are based.
And since this new missile system is expected to be a $93 billion total investment, an enormous potential outside infusion of cash into Wyoming’s economy hangs in the balance.
Some people also seem to think the local base is immune to the budget and staff cuts that are part of the Base Realignment and Closure process. But with BRAC a real possibility after the 2020 elections, no area that serves as home to a military base should get too comfortable.
Keep in mind that the 90th Missile Wing employs about 3,122 military personnel and 616 civilian employees. Family members add another 5,500 to the local population, and there are about 5,000 military retirees living in the area. If everyone lived locally, those 14,238 people would amount to about a quarter of the Capital City’s population.
So what’s the economic impact of those 500 to 600 airmen living in Colorado? Conservative estimates put it at $15,000 per person annually. If the first phase of the EUL development brings 300 people back, that’s $4.5 million a year. Bring everyone back, and you’ve potentially doubled that to $9 million in local spending.
The project also includes a 25-acre commercial component in phase 2 that could include a travel plaza, restaurants, grocery, retail office/convention space and other types of businesses. Located so visibly at a major gateway into the city’s West Edge, this development could attract businesses that don’t currently have a presence in Wyoming and help spur additional investments.
So with all of these good reasons for doing it, why aren’t the earth-movers already churning? Because although the Wyoming Business Council has committed more than $4 million in grants and loans for the project, developers are still $1.5 million short of having enough to move forward. Dale Steenbergen, president and CEO of the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce, which has been leading this effort with base officials, said he is optimistic they will be able to secure a Business-Ready Communities grant through the Business Council, with approval from the State Loan and Investment Board.
Unfortunately, although the application deadline is June 1, SLIB – which is comprised of the state’s top five elected officials – likely won’t vote on it until September. Mr. Steenbergen said construction could start late this fall or early next winter – not too late, but a full summer construction season will be missed.
Since the Air Force is expected to award the GBSD contract to either Boeing or Northrup Grumman sometime next year, there’s no time to waste. We encourage state officials to move as quickly as possible to approve this funding request.
Not only will this small investment likely yield massive returns, we owe it to our military brothers and sisters for all they do for us. And we shudder to think what could happen if the whole thing falls apart.