DOD releases plan for Interior basing of F-35s

An F-35 sits on the tarmac at Eielson. (Airman 1st Class Isaac Johnson / Eielson AFB)

The Fairbanks-North Pole area is at the start of a mini-boom, as the region prepares for the basing of two squadrons of F-35 fighter jets at Eielson Air Force Base. Challenges and opportunities presented by the F-35 basing are the focus a draft plan released this week by the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

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The Department of Defense funded Eielson Regional Growth Plan looks at the impacts of over 3,000 people, and more than $500 million in construction F-35 basing will bring to the area. Speaking to the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce, plan consultant Shelly Wade characterized the project.

“It’s been a year of a lot of listening and really strategizing and thinking with all of you as community members and with military families directly about what recommendations will not only benefit those incoming families, but also all of you that have lived here for decades that see this as an opportunity to improve the quality of life in your community,” Wade said.

Wade shared high level findings from the 450-page plan which makes recommendations across a range of areas, including housing. She says a substantial number of F-35 personnel will live at Eielson, but many other military and civilian workers and their families will have to reside off base.

”A need of 974 housing units,” Wade explained.

That means new construction in the North Pole area, which Wade says is underway.

“Single family homes, some duplexes… so it’s a combination of homes that are already happening,” Wade continued.

The basing of F-35’s at Eielson is expected to create 4,200 new jobs in the area by 2022, two-thirds of those off-base.

“There’s this opportunity to really train not only young people, but also some of our unemployed Fairbanks North Star Borough community members,” Wade said.

The plan recommends working with the University of Alaska Fairbanks and other education providers to prepare employees.

The plan also includes recommendations to address an increase in students anticipated to exceed the capacity of some area grammar and middle schools.

”Maybe combining schools is an opportunity combining some of the middle schools with the high schools that have more capacity,” Wade said. “Anybody go to high school in a portable classroom or elementary school in a portable classroom?”

Wade says the number of students relative to the broader tax paying borough population is forecast to strain school budgets after 2025.

The plan also covers quality of life issues and meeting the expectations and needs of people moving to the area from the Lower 48.

“Retail and shopping has got to be better, and also indoor recreation,” Wade said.

Wade stresses the importance of borough residents helping to prioritize recommendations in the draft Eielson Regional Growth Plan, which is open for public comment through the end of July.

Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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