GREAT FALLS — While manufacturing and other industrial developments are making a comeback here, city leaders say they still strive to maintain the biggest economic player in town — Malmstrom Air Force Base.
“The way to grow a community is the same way you build a business,” said Brett Doney, president of the Great Falls Development Authority. “You protect your existing customers first, and the military is our biggest customer.”
Malmstrom has 3,400 active-duty military personnel and another 4,500 military family dependents, civilian employees and contractors attached to the base, creating an estimated economic impact of $300 million to $350 million a year, according to the Air Force.
Its payroll alone last year was $219 million, base officials say.
Local economic and business officials said that effect certainly is felt in Great Falls; it’s estimated at 45 percent of the local economy. But its impact also spreads throughout the state, as Malmstrom personnel and families travel Montana and do things that all Montanans do, from hunting to skiing to attending sporting events to buying cars, officials said.
“It’s a common thought process that (the base) is just a Great Falls thing,” said David Weissman, chairman of the Montana Defense Alliance and owner of 13 Subway restaurants in Great Falls, Helena and Conrad. “But it touches all corners of the state.”
Malmstrom is deactivating some nuclear missiles next year. However, the change doesn’t mean fewer personnel or duties, and the base’s mission is expected to remain a vital part of national security for at least another 15 years, officials say.
“We’re not losing any manpower, we’re not losing any money,” said Col. John Wilcox, commander of the 341st Missile Wing, the primary mission at Malmstrom. “There are no losses associated with (the reduction).”
The three bases that oversee intercontinental ballistic missiles — Malmstrom, Minot (N.D.) Air Force Base and Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyo. — will remove 50 missiles, to comply with international nuclear weapons-reduction treaties.
However, the 16 or 17 silos emptied in northcentral Montana will remain on “warm” status, meaning they’ll be maintained by Malmstrom for use, as remaining missiles are shuttled among all of the existing silos.
Malmstrom’s missile wing also is adding 216 personnel within the next two years, as part of a “force improvement program” partly in response to last year’s test-cheating scandal, when investigators found that missile officers at Malmstrom and other bases had cheated on proficiency tests.
Malmstrom’s commanding officer at the time, Col. Robert Stanley, resigned in March.
Malmstrom’s status as a missile base leads local officials to believe it will be around for some time, as a key link in the national-defense chain.
“You can’t move missiles,” said Weissman. “You can move airplanes, you can move people, you can move helicopters, but you can’t move missiles.”
“We’re seeing growth, which is something we haven’t seen at the base for a long time,” said Doney. “Growth and stability — those are two great words when it comes to talking about our military mission.”
Steve Malicott, president and CEO of the Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, said the Air Force and its personnel not only spend their money locally, but also are big volunteers in the community.
“It’s not only an economic factor, but a human factor,” Malicott said.
Wilcox points out 45 percent of participants in the local Big Brothers and Big Sisters program come from the base.
Air Force dependents also make great employees, and many military personnel decide they want to retire in the area, sometimes returning to Montana after being stationed elsewhere, said Doney.
He said the economic development authority runs a workshop for Air Force personnel looking to retire in Great Falls and start a business.
Weissman and others say Great Falls would like to continue to diversify its economy and depend a little less on Malmstrom and the military, but that the base continues to be a valued partner.
The base helps counties in the region maintain roads that access missile silos, and the Air Force and Great Falls have a year-long “community partnership initiative,” where each side looks for services they can offer to each other to improve life and facilities in town.
“(The base) is just welcomed and appreciated,” said Malicott. “It’s truly a wonderful partnership. I think both the military and the community are much better for it, because they work so harmoniously together.”