By Nicholas K. Geranios Associated Press
SPOKANE — Fairchild Air Force Base is Spokane County’s largest employer and has been a mainstay of the local economy for seven decades.
That’s why local business and political leaders have launched a full court press to save the facility from a pending round of base closures. A key is landing the next generation of aerial refueling tankers, the KC-46A, to be built by Boeing. A decision on where the new planes will be based is expected this year.
“No base in the entire country is better qualified to serve as the first home of the new tankers than Fairchild,” said Republican U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, whose district includes the base.
Fairchild survived the last big rounds of base closures in the early 1990s, in part because the local congressman happened to be House Speaker Tom Foley.
A new round of closures is expected by 2015, although the military is close-mouthed about which bases might be on the chopping block.
Fairchild advocates are taking no chances. Greater Spokane Incorporated, the local economic development agency, recently took a delegation to Washington, D.C., to lobby Air Force officials about the merits of the base.
A major issue is the encroachment of civilian activities closer to the base, which is located about 10 miles west of Spokane in a fast-growing area centered around the city of Airway Heights.
The most controversial is a big casino and hotel project proposed by the Spokane Tribe of Indians just a few miles from the base. The casino is opposed by many Spokane civic and business leaders, even though it would create thousands of new jobs.
Fairchild boosters fear that a casino resort located under the flight lines will become an issue that leads to the base’s closure.
“This is the worst possible site for this type of development,” said Greg Bever, chair of Forward Fairchild, a committee that works to protect Fairchild. “It’s encroachment at its very worst and it directly impacts the current flying mission.”
A draft environmental impact statement prepared for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs found no problems with the location, and the Spokane Tribe is still trying to win federal and state approval for its casino. Opponents contend the draft EIS is flawed.
Fairchild has about 2,000 flights per month, mostly of aging KC-135 air tankers, and current flight patterns are directly over the proposed casino site, casino opponents say..
“Air space is a precious commodity, which is being encroached upon,” said retired Air Force Major General Paul Fletcher, a consultant to casino opponents. “The proposed development lies directly in the flight path at Fairchild.”
There is no dispute that Fairchild is a big part of the Spokane economy.
The base is home to both Air Force and Air National Guard refueling wings, and employs about 5,700 people. Fairchild is also home to the school where the Air Force teaches downed pilots how to survive and avoid capture in hostile territory.
A study prepared by Randy Barcus, chief economist for local utility Avista, found that the overall impact the military has on the economy in Spokane County was $793 million in 2011.
In addition, Department of Defense information showed that more than 20,000 military retirees in the Spokane area receive more than $607 million in pension payments, and depend on the base for many services.
Fairchild was established in 1942 as the Spokane Air Depot. It is named in honor of General Muir S. Fairchild, a World War I aviator.
Spokane beat out Seattle and Everett for the facility, in part because Spokane businesses and citizens donated $125,000 to buy 1,400 acres and presented the title to the War Department.
Supporters of the base point to its long history, proximity to potential trouble spots in Asia and deep support in the community. But they say the best way to preserve the base is to land the next generation of refueling tankers.
“Our pilots are flying tankers which are more than 50 years old,” McMorris Rodgers said. “The tankers are the one aircraft the military cannot go to war without.”
Boeing has a $35 billion contract to build 179 air tankers, with the first delivery expected in 2016, she said.
Other Washington politicians are also backing Fairchild for the tankers, including Gov. Chris Gregoire, U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and every member of the state’s congressional delegation.