Much of Fairbanks has been reeling from the size of potential job losses associated with proposed cuts at Eielson, which Schwartz told residents during a visit would ultimately see the base lose more than half of its 3,200 military and civilian personnel.The F-16 move, which is expected to eliminate 81 duplicated positions, will take more than 500 pilots, mechanics and support crew from Eielson. Add in their spouses and children, and well over 1,000 people could be leaving the Interior.
Back in North Pole, people say Eielson and Army installation Fort Wainwright are among the major economic pillars of the region.
"I think about 80 percent of my business comes from the bases absolutely, or are employed by the bases, so it would drastically affect my business," Richards said. "It's going to be affecting us big time if they do take them out."
It's a concern echoed by Jerry Koener, who manages the Beaver Lake Resort and its three buildings containing 56 apartments. The $3 million project depends heavily on Eielson for business.
"This unit here would be an example of what would happen if Eielson should leave: we would have units perfectly new, no tenant," Koener said, describing one of the resort's apartments. "About 45 percent of our tenants are military associated with Eielson, so we realize that a number of those will be affected."
The Air Force says moving jets and jobs to JBER is all about budget-cutting. Brig. Gen. Mark McLeod, who visited the state in April to study how the move should be made, says the decision was made on a fiscal basis.
"From the aspect of the president's budget, we're tasked in this process to move the airplanes to JBER," McLeod said. "We share efficiencies when we bring like units together."
In its current budget, the Air Force is promising to slash its spending by nearly $9 billion this fiscal year. Moving the F-16s to JBER is expected to contribute about $9 million to that total.
While in Fairbanks, McLeod met with community and political leaders to discuss the move. But the meeting appears to have raised questions, as well as frustration levels.
Jim Dodson, head of the Fairbanks Economic Development Corp., is one of many who feel the plan won't bring the savings the Air Force thinks it will.
"Do I trust them? No, I don't trust them," Dodson said. "They've committed to the president that they're going to save him that much money; they have no idea if this action will save them money or not. What they're trying to do is push the action through and hope for the best."
Opponents claim the Air Force's plans are based solely on assumptions, since the military isn't sharing the financial information that it's basing the move on.
"The congressional delegation has been asking for these documents and these assumptions, and we're not getting that," said Lisa Herbert, chair of the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce. "And then to hear that it will be a transparent process, well … it hasn't been transparent to begin with, so it puts us in a awkward situation."
According to North Pole Mayor Doug Isaacson, the Air Force's continued emphasis on costs offers an angle of attack for locals to fight the move.
"That means their course of action may change if the perceived savings are actually seen not to be there, so in that sense there is a ray of hope," Isaacson said.
Isaacson borrowed a Cold War catch-phrase from the late President Ronald Reagan to characterize the community's stance on the Air Force's projected savings figures.
"‘Trust but verify' -- code of the positive cynic," he said.
Concerns about the Air Force plan go all the way up to the office of Fairbanks Mayor Luke Hopkins, who's already looking beyond the immediate controversy.
"What is the next piece? What is the domino piece that could occur next? That's the one I am very concerned about," Hopkins said. "I get concerned that it's being set up for the next step."
The "next step" Hopkins refers to is a plan that's been tried before: a 2005 move by the Pentagon's Base Realignment and Closure Commission to transfer all of Eielson's aircraft off the base. Fairbanks dodged that bullet with vocal opposition both locally and in Congress, and by questioning the extent of the Air Force's projected savings.
Even if the F-16 move takes place as scheduled in the late summer of 2013, the Air Force's plans represent an overall job loss for the state. The Air Force expects to create only 600 new positions at JBER to replace the 1,600 jobs lost from Eielson, a major factor in the cost savings it expects to produce.
Watch "Mission Critical," Channel 2's one-hour special on the proposed F-16 move and its possible impact, on Thursday, May 3, at 7 p.m. following the Newshour.