AIRWAY HEIGHTS — Some big decisions that could help decide the future of Spokane’s Fairchild Air Force Base are expected soon.
The Air Force this week is expected to decide if Fairchild will serve as the first base for the next generation of air refueling tankers.
And the Bureau of Indian Affairs is expected to decide soon whether a big Indian casino can be built just a short distance from the base, an encroachment that opponents fear could eventually prompt the Air Force to close Fairchild.
The base is the Spokane area’s largest employer, with 5,800 workers and an economic impact of $1.3 billion per year. Supporters have been worried for two decades that it could be targeted for closure and have been working hard to protect the land and air around the base.
“We are advocating for new missions and protecting the base from encroachment,” said Rich Hadley, director of Greater Spokane Inc., an economic development group that has taken a lead role in protecting the base.
The group’s most important fight is to ensure the base is designated a home for the new KC-46A, to be built by Boeing. The KC-46 will replace the 50-year-old KC-135s the Air Force currently uses to refuel its planes in flight.
Fairchild is among four bases that are finalists for that job. The others are Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma, McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas, and Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota.
Hadley expects a decision as early as Wednesday.
Supporters say Fairchild has invested more than $400 million in base infrastructure over the last several decades. It already possesses much of the needed capacity to accommodate the new KC-46A aerial refueling tanker, including a 14,000 foot runway and a new wing command headquarters.
Perhaps more important, it is the only primary tanker base west of the Rocky Mountains, making it closer to key Pacific hotspots, Spokane business leaders say. And Boeing is only hours away by land, if issues with the planes arise.
The military base that became Fairchild was established in 1942. Since then, the community has been concerned about the base’s future.
The conflict over the Spokane Tribe’s planned casino complex illustrates that concern.
The Spokane Tribe is proposing a casino, hotel and retail complex it says could provide up to 5,000 jobs. But because the land is off the reservation, the tribe needs the approval of both federal regulators and Gov. Jay Inslee to build the project.