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Drones increase Grand Forks Air Force Base's economic impact

GRAND FORKS -- The economic impact of Grand Forks Air Force Base increased in fiscal year 2012, thanks to its Global Hawk drones, base officials said.

The base released its annual economic impact report this week, which showed a total impact of $203.1 million, up $13.8 million, or 7 percent, from the previous fiscal year.

Also seeing growth was the estimated annual dollar value of jobs created by the base, which totaled $32 million, up $2 million, or 7 percent.

"It's good news," said County Commissioner John Schmisek, a member of the Base Realignment Impact Committee. "We seem to be coming out of a low point, but we'll need another year or two to confirm that."

BRIC is a community group working to help the community get economic bang out of the base. It was created after the last base realignment and closure round, when the base lost its flying tanker mission.

The final tanker departed at the end of 2010. The first drone arrived in fall 2011.

Growing alongside the money is the number of personnel stationed at the base.

"In September 2011, we had roughly 1,200 military members assigned at Grand Forks," said base spokesman Tim Flack. "Now, we have more than 1,500 stationed here."

Much of the growth can be attributed to the Global Hawks of the 96th Reconnaissance Group, according to Flack.

The number of personnel could continue to grow if the base again hosts tankers. It is one of four bases being considered by the Department of Defense for a new tanker mission.

Since 2000, the base's population has decreased by about 50 percent.

Despite the promising increases, the base is still nowhere close to the economic impact it once had. In 2008, the economic impact was $433.9 million with about 1,900 active military personnel. It bottomed out last year at $189.3 million.

"We've got a long road ahead," said Klaus Thiessen, BRIC member and president of the Grand Forks Economic Development Corp.

He said he's optimistic about the report and the base's future. That includes new drone industry activities that could be generated by the University of North Dakota, Northland Community and Technical College and the private sector if they can lease parts of the base.

The base's number of tenants increased from six to nine this year compared to 2011. With new leases that number could grow.