Construction at area’s Air Force installations to inject $1.5 billion into Interior economy

Work is under way on new facilities at Eielson Air Force Base that’ll accommodate the 54 F-35As that will be coming to Eielson beginning in 2020, along with the personnel who’ll be flying and maintaining them, and their family members. (U.S. Marine Corps)

Summer promises to be a busy construction season for the Interior due to a series of projects at the region’s two Air Force installations. The projects will inject more than $1.5 billion into the area’s economy.

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Work is just getting under way on a $22 million building at Eielson Air Force Base that will enable pilots of the new F-35 fighters that are coming here to train in a computer-simulated environment.

“We just broke ground on that. So, that project is ongoing,”  Kevin Blanchard said. He directs the F-35 Program Integration Office for Eielson’s 354th Fighter Wing. “We expect it to finish in about October of ’18. We’ll get our first aircraft in April of 2020. But to do that, we’ve got to build a bunch of facilities.”

Eielson Air Force Base conducted a ground-breaking ceremony on March 29 to officially begin work on the F-35A Lightning II flight simulator facility. From left, Jim Jeffords, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Alaska District; Col. David Mineau, 354th Fighter Wing commander; Bill Watterson, Watterson Construction. (Eric Fisher/U.S. Air Force)

About $510 million worth of facilities will be built over the next couple of years to accommodate two squadrons of F-35As that’ll be based at Eielson. Blanchard said Eielson has opened its South Gate to give workers easy access to their construction sites on that end of the base.

“We have a very congested front gate at certain times of the day right now,” Blanchard said. “So, our ability to use that South Gate as a contractor/construction gate just during the time period of the F-35 buildup will alleviate a lot of that congestion and traffic.”

State Transportation Department spokeswoman Meadow Bailey said a project to improve the South Gate intersection with the Richardson Highway will get under way later this year.

“There will be some installation of overhead lighting, some signing, striping,” Bailey said, “… and then, constructing a north- and south-bound turn lanes onto Eielson, and then there will be a northbound acceleration lane.”

Blanchard said seven projects are scheduled to get under way on Eielson this year in support of the F-35s, including one for $9.4 million to build six munitions-storage bunkers. And another, estimated to cost between $40 million and $50 million, to construct a maintenance hangar.

“That involves all the people that are coming with the airplanes, that’ll fly ’em, fix ’em, support ’em – that type of thing,” Blanchard said.

About 1,250 people are coming to Eielson to fly, fix and support the F-35s, nearly all of them active-duty personnel. Blanchard says that number could grow to about 1,370. He says Lockheed, the aircraft manufacturer, will bring about 60 workers, and subcontractor Pratt and Whitney, which builds the jets’ engines, another half-dozen. And he said most of the newcomers will bring family.

“We’re expecting about 60 percent of those folks to have families,” Blanchard said. “So, the total number that we’re looking at, as far as coming into the community, would be about 3,500.”

Workers pull down old radar structures that were part of the now-defunct Ballistic Missile Early Warning System at Clear Air Force Station in October. The Cold War-era BMEWS was removed and recycled to make way for new construction. About a billion dollars’ worth of work is under way at Clear, related to installation of the a new radar system that will provide much greater coverage for such missile-defense facilities as the base at Fort Greely. (U.S. Air Force Space Command)

But Jim Dodson, president and CEO of the Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation, said Eielson doesn’t have anywhere near enough on-base housing to accommodate all those newcomers.

“So, 70 percent of them are going to have to live off-base,” Dodson said.

Dodson said the newcomers will need another 800 units of housing. He says building them will pump another $80 million to $100 million into the local economy. He says Eielson’s projects, combined with construction of a new radar facility at Clear Air Force Station, just south of Nenana, are giving the area’s construction industry a badly needed boost.

“That whole project, including the long-range discrimination radar and the buildup of that base – that’s about a billion dollars’ worth of construction,” Dodson said.

Dodson said the economic boost from both military-related construction and the growing workforce it’ll bring will go a long ways toward alleviating the recession that’s set in statewide since oil prices began to plummet four years ago.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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