Airworthy

Lest you think MidAmerica has been a complete waste of taxpayers' dollars, St. Clair County officials would like to point to a few benefits already accrued.

In 1994-95, when military bases started closing one after the other across the country, Scott Air Force Base was told its control tower and takeoff and landing capabilities were "very deficient."

St. Clair County's economic forecast immediately went into a tailspin. Scott has 9,335 full-time and 1,787 part-time employees, making it the fifth largest employer in the St. Louis region (surpassed only by Boeing, BJC Health System, Unity Health System and Schnuck Markets). Its economic impact on the region exceeds $1 billion every year.

Jim Pennekamp, executive director of the Leadership Council of Southwestern Illinois, who joined the effort to keep Scott open, tried first highlighting the most significant aspect of the base -- that it was home to the United States Transportation Command. "That means that nothing moves by land, sea or air without the Transportation Command at Scott organizing and administering the entire move," he says. "In the case of Desert Storm and Desert Shield, the Transportation Command coordinated the whole move for the Air Force, the Army and the Navy.

"The issue was not whether the Transportation Command was in question," Pennekamp continues, "but as the defense budget continues to be strained, the question was, 'Do you leave Scott open with the Command, or do you begin moving these things elsewhere and start closing Scott?'"

At the time, MidAmerica was still being constructed, and it wasn't until Pennekamp and others pointed to its end result -- a brand-new control tower and 10,000-foot runway -- that the base-closure committee started looking elsewhere.

"Once we injected that into the argument in 1995," Pennekamp says, "I think it played a key role in keeping Scott off the recommended-closure list."

Now Scott Air Force Base is using MidAmerica's runway until an additional 1,000 feet is added to its own. Once that's completed sometime next year, the Air National Guard's 126th Air Refueling Wing will move its operations, including some 1,000 jobs, from O'Hare Airport in Chicago to Scott and MidAmerica.

St. Clair County Board Chairman John Baricevic, in his optimism, adds: "If we don't ever get a passenger plane in and out of MidAmerica Airport, we still have gone a long way in protecting the 10,000 jobs at Scott Air Force Base. And if we never bring a civilian airline here, the Air National Guard unit is 300 full-time and 700 part-time jobs that are coming to the St. Louis region because of MidAmerica.

"So," he concludes, "the glass is half-full; it's not half-empty. But we do need to get some more water in the glass."

-- Melinda Roth

 
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