With F-35 squads set for Eielson, thousands of people may come up with them

The economic benefits that will come with two squadrons of F-35s scheduled to be based at Eielson beginning in 2021 are now expected to draw more than 5,000 people to the area, a consultant said Monday. (DVIDS/U.S. Air Force)

More than 5,000 people may come to the Fairbanks area over the next four years as part of the move to base two squadrons of F-35 fighters at Eielson Air Force Base. The latest estimate announced Monday is well above the previous estimate of 3,500. The bigger population increase is expected to place a greater burden on local services.

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The new population-growth projections were announced at a meeting Monday in Salcha by consultants hired by the Fairbanks North Star Borough to study how the area can accommodate Eielson’s expansion. Shelly Wade is a member of the Arcadis project team that’s conducting the study. She says the higher projections include 400 or so additional personnel the Air Force will likely bring to Eielson, along with their family members.

“It’s highly likely the additional positions that’ve been requested by the Air Force will be approved,” Wade said.

Wade said the higher projections also include the number of people who would be drawn to the Fairbanks area by the jobs and other economic opportunities that would be generated by all the new personnel coming to Eielson.

“So, those folks needs services,” Wade said. “They need food services, retail services, mechanics, child care – all of these things.”

Arcadis’ studies suggest the numbers of those who would move here for jobs related to the expansion range from about 1,700 to just over 2,000. Wade told about two dozen people at the meeting that those are preliminary numbers that’ll be revised. The meeting in Salcha was the first of seven the consultants will hold around Fairbanks this week to identify shortages of housing, schools and other resources that may occur with the influx of new residents drawn by the expansion.

Jeff Stepp is a special assistant to borough Mayor Karl Kassel. Stepp is working with the Arcadis community outreach that’s being conducted to get public input on gaps in services that need to be filled before the new personnel arrive.

Twenty-four people attended last night’s community outreach meeting at the Salcha Senior Citizens Center on Johnson Road. It was the first of seven such meetings the borough and its contractor consultants are conducting around the Fairbanks area this week. (Tim Ellis/KUAC)

“I think both Eielson Air Force Base and the Fairbanks North Star Borough have a shared interest in making sure the expansion accommodates the needs of the current residents and the future residents,”  Stepp said. “We got a lot of really good ideas, and good input, from these folks from Salcha who showed up to talk with us.”

Many of the comments concerned the sluggish economy and its effect on the local housing market. Others talked about a lack of medical facilities near Eielson and inadequate internet and cellphone service in and around the base. Shelly Curtis, an administrative aide at Salcha School, said enforcement of speed limits and improved intersections are badly needed along the Richardson Highway.

“Our suggestion is turn lanes,” Curtis said, “some turn lanes at some of the higher-traffic (areas), such as near the school, where we’re on a curve…”

Curtis said turn lanes would help buses and other school-related traffic get on and off highway more safely at the school, located about 35 miles south of Fairbanks. Salcha Fire Chief Ernie Misewicz said turn lanes also are needed for several busy intersections along the Richardson just south of Eielson.

“There’s an increase in commercial truck traffic – semi’s and what-not delivering goods back and forth,” Misewicz said. “We also have a tremendous amount of military traffic that comes through that are either going down to Greely for some maneuvers or they’re going to go up on the Johnson Road.”

The chief also said the ten local fire departments that have a mutual-aid agreement with Eielson’s will need to train more before the F-35s arrive, so they’ll all be better-prepared to respond to emergencies, including those involving aircraft, that occur off-base.