Rapid City jubilant over Ellsworth vote

Chet Brokaw: The Associated Press

RAPID CITY, S.D. — Two dozen people leaped to their feet, cheered and applauded early Friday when a federal commission voted to save Ellsworth Air Force Base from closure.

“That’s a load off,” Pennington County Commissioner Ken Davis said. “This is about the most fantastic day for South Dakota in a lot of years.”

The group, which included many of the people who worked to save the base east of Rapid City, gathered shortly after dawn at the Rapid City Chamber of Commerce office to watch the Base Realignment and Closure Commission’s discussion on a big-screen television.

Chamber President Jim McKeon and Ellsworth Task Force Chairman Bruce Rampelberg shook hands immediately after the vote. Many of those at the gathering congratulated Rampelberg.

“Happy days,” he said.

“Hot diggity damn, we did it,” Davis added.

Retired Air Force Master Sgt. Dave Jeffries said the decision makes sense because it keeps national defense strong, avoids devastation to the Black Hills economy and will preserve medical care for retired military people in the area.

Another Pennington County Commission member, Mark Kirkeby, said he had tears in his eyes as the commission voted 8-1 to save Ellsworth. “Oh, my God. It’s a fantastic day,” he said.

Angelique Mills, who with her husband owns and operates Angelique’s Custom Embroidery a few blocks from the base, said the decision allows people to get on with their lives and livlihoods. Nearly all the shop’s customers are Ellsworth personnel who need patches sewn on or other maintenance of their uniforms.

“I got up this morning and I thought, ’Lord, what is it going to be?’ When I heard, it was like a weight off my shoulders. It’s wonderful, wonderful,” Mills said.

Ellsworth played a major role in the Cold War by maintaining nuclear warheads in underground missiles and in the air. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, it has been home to roughly half the nation’s fleet of B1-B long-range bombers.

The base contributes an estimated $278 million a year to South Dakota’s economy, particularly to the Black Hills region.

Closing Ellsworth would have meant the loss of more than 4,000 military personnel, 5,600 dependents and another 1,000 civilian jobs, according to recent studies. A university professor had estimated that the loss of the base could result in about 10,000 people leaving the area. That would be about 9 percent of the two-county area around Rapid City.

On Thursday, Rampelberg said he believed South Dakota officials argued effectively that it would be a mistake to close Ellsworth and place all the nation’s B1-B bombers in one location at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas. Officials also showed that closing the base would result in little or no savings, he said.

The base’s supporters said they need to be on guard for the future of Ellsworth. Rampelberg said the Ellsworth Task Force will continue to try to add new missions to the base to protect against any future closure efforts.