County, city leaders hold joint meeting for Air Force base status report

Appearing in Grand Forks Herald on August 23, 2016

By Andrew Haffner

Grand Forks city and county representatives held a joint meeting Tuesday at City Hall to hear a status briefing about Grand Forks Air Force Base from both the base’s commander and a strategic consulting group.

Col. Rodney Lewis told members of the City Council and County Commission the base is doing well in terms of both infrastructure and programming, especially in regard to its work in unmanned aerial systems and the Grand Sky business park.

“Grand Sky, in and of itself, and for me as a young commander, has been a highlight of the last year,” Lewis said of the UAS testing facility. “I’m looking forward to great success working with all the partners moving ahead.”

Additionally, the colonel reported the base had hosted high-ranking Air Force leaders for visits over the past year to showcase its various capabilities. Those who came, Lewis said, “walked away with a new appreciation” of the base and its assets.

After Lewis finished his presentation, Tom Ford, Grand Forks County government relations coordinator and overseer of the Base Realignment Impact Committee, said the base and the wider community shared a solid collaborative relationship.

The link between the two, Ford said, has benefited the Air Force facility and has been part of a trend he described as communities “shaping the base, shaping the mission and the role of the installation.”

“States and communities are investing resources, whether it be in-kind or economical resources, into base retention and base enhancement,” Ford said. “This community is doing that.”

The briefing ended with comments from members of the Yonkers Group, a strategic consulting firm headed by Terry Yonkers, former assistant secretary of the Air Force.

Yonkers, who was joined at the meeting by fellow consultants and retired Air Force personnel Lt. Gen. William Rew and Lt. Gen. Rusty Findley, was hired by the BRIC about two years ago to strengthen the bond between the base and the surrounding community.

Yonkers and his colleagues spoke optimistically about the base and its future prospects. They cited Grand Sky as a key example of the benefits of cooperation between civilian entities and the base. The UAS business park was created through use of an enhanced-use lease agreement made between the base and Grand Forks County.

“Nobody in the halls of the Pentagon knew Grand Forks,” Yonkers said of the base in past years. “Today, it’s on everybody’s mind and everybody’s lips. … Now you’ve got them talking about Grand Forks, Grand Sky and Grand Forks Air Force Base.”

After the meeting, County Commission member Tom Falck said he thought the briefing was an “excellent” summary of the base’s current status and potential future issues.

“You can’t get on top of this issue with just one briefing, so I would hope the next time (the Yonkers Group) is in Grand Forks, they would be able to appear and do the same thing,” he said.