South Dakota Hit Hard by Base Closure

Robert Siegel talks with Jim Shaw, mayor of Rapid City, S.D., about the Pentagon's recommendation to close Ellsworth Air Force base. Ellsworth houses 29 B-1B bombers and is the second largest employer in South Dakota.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now to South Dakota, the home of Ellsworth Air Force Base, which has half of the nation's fleet of B-1 bombers and is on the Pentagon's proposed closure list. Ellsworth is also the second-largest employer in the state of South Dakota. Jim Shaw is the mayor of Rapid City and joins us now.

And, Mayor Shaw, what would the proposed closure of Ellsworth do to your city and your state?

Mayor JIM SHAW (Rapid City, South Dakota): Well, in terms of the city and the western part of the state, it is the largest employer. And so it would be devastating, at least in the short term, to have 3,000-plus direct employees and probably double that in terms of affected employees. That is upwards of 10 percent of our total population, not just the work force. Rapid City is about 60,000 people. So it would have a tremendous impact, especially short-term.

SIEGEL: On the other hand, this is an Air Force base that was once connected to all the missile silos in South Dakota. It's post-Cold War now. Why not close the base?

Mayor SHAW: Well, in one respect, this base, of course, goes back to World War II, so it's about 60 years old. And from that point of view, the needs have changed dramatically. And we lost about half the military employees who were at Ellsworth over the last several years. And, frankly, we've been able to absorb that loss very well. So...

SIEGEL: Then why not be optimistic about life after Ellsworth closing?

Mayor SHAW: Well, I think we have to be. We're on kind of a parallel track, and not surprisingly our first order of business is going to be to examine the criteria, examine all the reasons that may be in the Department of Defense summary that we haven't seen yet but expect to next week, to see if any errors have been made. We were shocked and, frankly, angered to find out we were on the list because we've done so much in the community up to and including moving a whole interstate exit to try to ensure the long-term viability of Ellsworth.

SIEGEL: Keeping Ellsworth Air Force Base open has been no small political issue in South Dakota.

Mayor SHAW: It has been much talked about. And, in fact, this past fall in the Senate election, which saw former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle lose to Republican Senator John Thune, the retaining of Ellsworth Air Force Base as a vital part of the military was one of the campaign issues. Candidate Thune said, `I'm a Republican, so,' he said, `I have the ear of the president.'

SIEGEL: Yes. Senator Thune says the Pentagon was flat wrong about Ellsworth...

Mayor SHAW: Yes.

SIEGEL: ...and he says we'll continue to keep Ellsworth open.

Mayor SHAW: He was very emphatic. And, in fact, everyone echoes the same thing: anger and shock that the decision by the Department of Defense is flat wrong. And we need to do all we can to try to get the BRAC commission now to change this recommendation and keep Ellsworth open in the future.

SIEGEL: Well, Mayor Shaw, thanks for talking with us.

Mayor SHAW: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Jim Shaw is the non-partisan mayor of Rapid City, South Dakota, which is home to Ellsworth Air Force Base, slated for closing today by the Pentagon.

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