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South Dakotans Rally to Defend Imperiled Base

JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

When the Pentagon released its list yesterday of 180 military installations it wants to shut down, it sent shock waves through many communities. The news hit hard in South Dakota, which may take the biggest hit if the plan is implemented. The Defense Department wants to close Ellsworth Air Force Base, a huge economic presence in a state struggle to attract new businesses. Charles Michael Ray of South Dakota Public Radio has this report.

CHARLES MICHAEL RAY reporting:

At Ellsworth Air Force Base, Andrew Leek's Military Embroidery & Sewing(ph) is the place to go to get a new set of stripes sewn on to your uniform.

(Soundbite of sewing machine)

RAY: The shop is just a stone's-throw away from the main entrance of the sprawling base just outside Rapid City, South Dakota. Inside this tiny store, racks and racks of dress blues and camouflaged uniforms are lined up in tight rows and the walls are adorned with military medals and patches. The news that Ellsworth is on the base closure list has shop owner Beverly Mills understandably concerned.

Ms. BEVERLY MILLS (Andrew Lee's Military Embroidery & Sewing): And we'll be here 20 years and we do cater to the Air Force base quite a bit and we get about 90 percent of our business from the Air Force base. So this pending closure would be devastating to us and other businesses also. It's a nervous situation to be in because you get so lax and then all of a sudden it's going to be pulled from under your feet. And you think, `Oh, my gosh,' you know?

RAY: Mills' concerns are shared by many in this tight-knit northern Plains community. Base personnel are part of about just every facet of life here. Military kids fill local schools. Volunteer organizations have come to rely on the help and donations from Ellsworth personnel. And it's common here to see uniformed crewmen in public. The population of Ellsworth alone accounts for more than 10 percent of Rapid City, the state's second-largest town. The base provides nearly 7,000 military-related jobs and all of those jobs are here to support this...

(Soundbite of military aircraft)

RAY: ...the B-1 bomber. A B-1 roars over a cattle pasture adjacent to the air base runway. Locals argue that these desolate and relatively unpopulated hills and badlands are a perfect place for jets like this to practice maneuvers. Ellsworth is currently one of two installations in the country to house B-1s. Military officials say the airplane accounted for 40 percent of all bombs dropped on Iraq and Afghanistan. Under the Pentagon's plan, these B-1s will be transferred to Dyess Air Base in Texas. If the nationwide realignment process goes through, Oklahoma, Florida and Texas are among the states set to gain military personnel while Maine, Alaska and the Dakotas are among those that will lose. South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds says the military may be overlooking the economic impact of base shutdowns on rural states.

Governor MIKE ROUNDS (South Dakota): On an economic side, I can tell you that we have a real tough time understanding why any state would be expected to lose its second-largest employer.

RAY: In the effort to avoid losing this base, the community has spent more than $12 million over the past decade for lobbying the Pentagon and reducing urban sprawl, crowding the runway. Ellsworth residents hope that this possible closure could open up new opportunities, which has been the case in other communities. Jane Murphy is part of a citizens group called Democracy in Action.

Ms. JANE MURPHY (Democracy in Action): As difficult as the potential closing of Ellsworth Air Force Base will be on the families and businesses in the Black Hills area, it also offers an opportunity for the political and economic energy that's been spent on maintaining and protecting Ellsworth to be redirected into something positive and more progressive.

RAY: As South Dakotans struggle to search for a silver lining in the potential loss of thousands of jobs, state politicians vow to fight to save Ellsworth before the closure plan is finalized in September, but they concede it will be an uphill battle. Historically only about 15 percent of the bases slated by the Pentagon for shutdown survive the closure process.

For NPR News, I'm Charles Michael Ray in Rapid City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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