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Grand Forks needs to prepare as support for base closure process builds, speakers say

Airmen at the Grand Forks Air Force Base stand at attention during the 319th Air Base Wing Assumption of Command ceremony in June 2017 at the Grand Forks Air Force Base. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

The call for a Congressional process that threatened to close Grand Forks Air Force Base in the past is gaining support, and Grand Forks needs to be ready to make its case if it happens, military experts said Wednesday.

"I think there is new momentum and I know DOD (the Department of Defense) probably is going to request it again next year," said Matt Borron, chief operating officer of the Association of Defense Communities.

Representatives of the association discussed the possibility of a base realignment and closure, or BRAC, round during the group's North Dakota Defense Forum in Grand Forks. A previous BRAC round led to Grand Forks Air Force Base dropping its tanker mission in exchange for unmanned aircraft operations in 2005.

Congress may authorize BRAC, but closures and realignments must be screened by an independent commission before being approved by Congress.

The Pentagon has asked for a round every year since 2012 without success, but support gained steam when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., backed legislation that would eliminate the independent commission.

Congress would choose which bases would close, meaning states with more representation, like California, would have more power than states with few delegates, like North Dakota.

"It's very different from anything communities have faced before," said George Schlossberg, legal counsel for the association. "The McCain bill, to a certain degree, is a return to the pre-BRAC world."

The Senate approved its version of the National Defense Authorization Act without text authorizing BRAC. It's unlikely lawmakers would support a BRAC round in the near future, or at least until the 2018 election is over, Tom Ford, coordinator for the Grand Forks Base Realignment Impact Committee, previously told the Herald.

Still, talk of the process has local and North Dakota leaders concerned as support mounts. The military branches have been more united and vocal in calling for a BRAC round, Ford said at the forum.

So far, Congress has restricted funding that would allow the military to plan for BRAC, Schlossberg said. The question is whether Congress will allow that planning process to begin, he said.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D, said she couldn't predict if Congress would approve a BRAC round in the near future, but said it would not be an unnecessary use of government resources.

Grand Forks is prepared to make its case to stay open because of the base's chances of receiving an Arctic mission, UND's aviation school and Global Hawk operations at the base, which she described as "a mission of the future."

"I think we've got it, we just need to make sure everyone out there understands," she said, adding Grand Forks' quality of life is welcoming for military staff. "Even if it happens, I think we are well-positioned to tell an amazing story about our assets."

Sen. John Hoeven, who spoke Tuesday at the forum, and Heitkamp have worked to convince U.S. military leaders to consider Grand Forks a resource in defending the Northern Tier.

"We continue working to make Grand Forks the center of all things UAS, and the support of the community is vital in that effort," Hoeven said in a statement, adding the Red River Valley is a growing leader in the drone industry.

The key is for North Dakota communities to stay in communications with military leaders, as well as promote the bases as needed resources, Ford said.

"There really is no magic formula to prepare your community for BRAC," Ford said. "The best thing we can do is be united."

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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