Eielson’s F-35s will ‘save our bacon’ by offsetting economic slump, Fairbanks Mayor Says

354th Fighter Wing Commander Col. David Mineau, left, and borough Mayor Karl Kassel prepare to fly in one of the F-16s at Eielson last week.
(Photo by Isaac Johnson/354th FW public affairs)

Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Karl Kassel said the buildup associated with two squadrons of F-35 warplanes that’ll be coming to Eielson Air Force Base in a couple of years will offset decreases in population and state funding that are both being driven by Alaska’s recession-wracked economy.

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In better times, Kassel might be crowing about an expansion of the Fairbanks area’s economy that would be driven by half a billion dollars in construction and 5,000 new people who are expected to be drawn here by the F-35s. Instead, the mayor said he’s just glad that the economic benefits will basically just enable the area to hold its own.

“So, it’s huge for all of us in the borough,” Kassel said, “and it’s helping save our bacon so to speak with the changing economy and what’s going on in the state.”

What’s going on statewide is a continuation of the economic slowdown that’s been under way for more than three years now caused by plummeting oil prices and a corresponding free-fall of state revenues that come from the industry. According to the state Department of Labor and Workforce DevelopmentAlaska’s unemployment rate in August stood at 6.3 percent. In the borough, it was 5.5 percent. Statewide job growth, wage growth, GDP growth and home prices were all down by more than two percentage points in August from the 10-year average.

So Kassel said the near-term prospect of slow or no growth of the borough’s economy doesn’t sound too bad.

“We’re going to see our economy stay comparatively flat,” Kassel said. “While the rest of the state is going to be taking a pretty good hit.”

Kassel took a few minutes away from schmoozing during Tuesday’s F-35 celebration of sorts at Eielson to explain studies that suggest most of the 5,000 people coming to the area with the warplanes also will likely offset a decrease in the Fairbanks-area population that’s largely due to cuts in funding for state agencies and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“We have also been quantifying the exodus from Fairbanks as a result of cuts at the university (and) state cuts,” Kassel said. “There’s been a number of those that are resulting in people leaving Fairbanks now.”

Kassel said most of the new residents probably will find homes on the city’s east side, closer to Eielson, while much of the population loss likely will occur on the west side, around the university.

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Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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