New task force has big job: Defending Scott Air Force Base against closure

News-DemocratAugust 21, 2013 

St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern.

TIM VIZER — tvizer@bnd.com

A newly formed task force is laying the foundation for efforts to keep Scott Air Force Base open, and hopefully draw more commands to the metro-east air base.

The Retention and Expansion of Scott Air Force Base Task Force will be led by the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, a member-based economic development group serving Madison and St. Clair counties. The task force has a big job -- defend Scott Air Force Base against closure in the next round of cuts from the Department of Defense.

Ellen Krohne, executive director of the Leadership Council, said the task force is meeting frequently to organize and prepare for federal hearings of the Base Re-alignment and Closure Commission -- commonly know as BRAC. The current federal defense bill does not include such hearings until at least 2015.

Krohne said she recently met with leaders from other areas in the country whose regions were dependent upon military bases as economic engines.

"I definitely got a renewed sense of urgency to be sure we are doing this now," Krohne said. "I think other regions are well-funded and have lots of activities underway. We need to make sure we are just as diligent."

The air base has an estimated economic impact of $3 billion annually upon the metro-east and is by far the area's largest employer with about 13,000 people working at the base.

The base has seen great growth since the last round of federal cuts in 2005, Krohne said.

"We've seen an economic impact growth of 40 percent and we want to continue that growth going forward," Krohne said. "Our focus is not just defending closure of the base but in finding the right ways to grow."

The task force is meeting with chambers of commerce, business leaders and elected officials, such as a planned meeting with Southwestern Illinois Mayors Association on Thursday. The group also plans to meet soon with military leaders at the base.

"I think every business and every community in the region, not just Southern Illinois, but in the St. Louis region has a huge impact from Scott," Krohne said. "It'll be a regional type of coalition with a broad base to make sure people are communicated with and understand the levels of support we need."

The group is also working to raise $3.2 million to help with their efforts. The figure is based upon required resources during the 2005 cuts and will fund a five-year campaign, Krohne said.

The funds will partially be used to hire lobbyists and consultants. For example, the task force is considering hiring a consultant to conduct an analysis of the base's current weaknesses and strengths related to BRAC.

County Boards in St. Clair and Madison counties recently gave $50,000 each as seed money to fund the efforts of the task force.

St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern said during a meeting on economic development Tuesday that the county owes a lot of employment to the base, including construction-related jobs.

"We're appreciative of the Leadership Council and their efforts on this," Kern said. "They have a Military Affairs Committee already which meets on a regular basis and interacts with Scott Air Force Base and builds awareness of issues. This is an extension, a new additional committee on the Leadership Council that is going to help us tackle the issue."

Madison County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan said the Leadership Council was instrumental in keeping the base open in the past.

"Now I don't honestly think Scott Air Force Base will close," Dunstan said. "I don't see that as a reality but we have to take it to the next step to attract other commands to the area. The Leadership Council is taking the leadership role in this because we don't have time to do this ourselves. Scott Air Force Base is actually in St. Clair County but it is such a big issue for the St. Louis region that we need to do whatever we can to keep what we have and this might be opportune to attract other commands."

Dunstan, a resident of Troy, said he estimates 20 percent of the residents in the town are connected to the base.

"Scott Air Force Base is a tremendous asset to our area and I think we are also an asset to the base," Dunstan said, noting the region recently won the Abilene Trophy in recognition of its support of the base.

Along with Krohne, other co-chairs of the task force include St. Clair County Economic Development Director Terry Beach and America's Central Port Business Development Manager Frank Miles. New additions to the task force include Gerry Schuetzenhofer with the Council's Military Affairs Committee, Mike Leopold with the Belle-Scott Committee, Council President Rhonda Sauget and retired Major Gen. Jack Griffith.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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