U.S. Sens. Mike Rounds and John Thune announced Wednesday that Ellsworth Air Force Base will officially be the Air Force’s first base to receive the new B-21 Raider stealth bomber.
During a call Wednesday afternoon with Air Force Global Strike Commander Gen. Timothy Ray, Rounds said he was informed that Ellsworth has been officially designated as the main base of the B-21.
“I am pleased that the U.S. Air Force has officially selected Ellsworth Air Force Base as the first home of the B-21 Raider bomber,” Rounds said. “This landmark decision makes certain that South Dakota will continue to play a critical role in our national defense."
Thune told the Journal on Wednesday the announcement was a huge step for South Dakota. Ellsworth is not only the first base to host the B-21, but it will also host the formal training unit and the first operational squadron.
"This is really a slam-dunk. We hit the trifecta with this," Thune said. "It's been in the works for a long time. It's hard to believe that 16 years ago the base was the verge of being closed, and now here we are celebrating something that is going to secure the future of (Ellsworth), but it will enhance and expand the role that it plays in national security and the enormous impact it will have on Rapid City, the Black Hills and the entire region."
U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson said he was pleased with the selection of Ellsworth AFB to be the home of the B-21.
“This has been a long journey,” Johnson said. “We’ve felt good about our progress over the last few years, but now we can say without any hedging or hesitation: Our nation’s first B-21 bombers will call Ellsworth home.”
Thune and Rounds worked simultaneously to remove Ellsworth AFB from the Base Realignment and Closure list in 2005 — Thune in the Senate and Rounds as governor.
In 2006, Rounds led a legislative effort to establish the South Dakota Ellsworth Development Authority to help secure the base, and Thune worked toward having the Air Force place the consolidated Financial Services Center at Ellsworth.
When the B-21 program was announced in 2014, the two senators began advocating for the selection of Ellsworth as the key base for the stealth aircraft.
The B-21 will eventually replace the B-1 and B-2 bomber aircrafts. Both Ellsworth and Dyess Air Force Base in Texas were being considered to host Main Operating Base 1, B-21 operational squadrons, a formal training unit and a weapons generation facility.
A Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the base was released in August and notes that both Ellsworth and Dyess are similar in size, and facility installation would have similar environmental impacts.
Wednesday's decision solidified Ellsworth AFB as the official host.
"The selection of Ellsworth is a testament to the hard work of our Air Force personnel on the ground at Ellsworth and the communities of Box Elder and Rapid City that have worked hard to improve the long-term suitability of the base for this new state-of-the-art aircraft," Rounds said.
With the B-21 base established at Ellsworth, aircraft operations would increase by up to 15.8% and total flight operations would increase by 41.1% at the Powder River Training Complex. There will also be about 7,700 military members, spouses and children at the base.
The Powder River Training Complex overlies large portions of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. It allows aircrews to plan realistic training scenarios directly applicable to current operations and potential future conflict.
Thune said the Powder River Training Complex was a key part of the Air Force's decision to locate the B-21 fleet at Ellsworth AFB.
"We quadrupled the size of that, increased its capabilities. That was a 10 year process... I think that was key to this (decision)," Thune said.
Thune said the mission will result in 582 indirect jobs and $23,878,400 in economic activity in Rapid City and Box Elder. Approximately 4.3 million square feet of new construction and 1.7 million square feet of renovation will be conducted over the next several years in preparation for the B-21 mission.
The record of decision formally enables the Air Force to proceed with planning and contracting for the military construction activity, which will progress alongside the active B-1 mission, Thune said.
Box Elder, the Douglas School District, Pennington County and the surrounding communities are preparing for the arrival of the airmen and their families.
The Douglas School Board approved a 20-acre purchase in September to add a new elementary school in anticipation of the base's growth and eventually expects to add a high school for 1,400 students and three new elementary schools with 500 students each.
The South Dakota Ellsworth Development Authority approved a $12.6 million recreation center planned to be completed in 2022 in Box Elder in anticipation of the base. The center will be built along Liberty Boulevard.
Rounds said some of the funding for infrastructure needs in Box Elder for the base expansion is likely to come from federal appropriations.
"We are just in the middle of the appropriations process right now for the next fiscal year. I know there are requests out there for assistance for particular projects, specifically in (the Box Elder area) that would be impacting the roads in Box Elder," Rounds said. "Normally, that would be considered state or local in nature, but I know we just got a request that I looked at today requesting some federal funding as well."
Thune said the pre-construction work at Ellsworth will begin perhaps as early as this summer.
"We know what some of the needs are and obviously, there will have to be a significant amount of investment," Thune said. "The difference between the B-21 and the B-1 is the nuclear capability of the B-21. That will take some additional construction and facilities that you wouldn't need for a conventional mission."
Rounds said some of the facility and security needs at Ellsworth will take into consideration the nuclear strike capability of the B-21.
"There will be some (security protocols) in place because the B-21 will be a nuclear-capable platform. That means the weapons construction systems that are put in place will have their own special security requirements," Rounds said. "Those facilities will have to be constructed, completed. Naturally, there is additional security anytime you have nuclear weapons capability in the area."
Banana plants are normally found in tropical areas but have fared well in Rapid City in recent years. On Wednesday, the city planted four at Wilson Park.
“They are really resilient, in fact, last year when we dug them out of the ground, I chopped them off at the base and in a couple days they were already sprouting leaves,” city Greenhouse Specialist John Berglund said.
Berglund first planted them five years ago as an experiment. Since then, they’ve stood tall in several city parks, including Halley Park and the Noordermeer Flower Gardens at Sioux Park.
“They’re just something fun, something different, something challenging, you don’t think of that in western South Dakota,” he said.
While banana plants do produce bananas, they are inedible.
“I have yet to see any fruit on them, I think because of us transplanting them every couple of months, they just don’t have the time to grow fruit,” Berglund said.
When the summer is over, crews will remove the plants and they will be root pruned. All leaves will be trimmed and the plants will be placed in pots and transported to greenhouses for the winter.
“Somebody at home can have these if they have room. I mean they take up 5 feet across and 6-7 feet tall, but if you had room you could have them at your house, maybe on a pool deck they would look really nice,” Berglund said.
City crews are also planting more than 27,000 flowers this week in parks and green spaces.
Plans to expand the commercial airline terminal and relocate the main runway at Rapid City Regional Airport took another step forward this week after the airport's board of directors voted to approve final directions for the 20-year master plan.
The plan calls for the terminal to be expanded with three additional gates, bringing the total to 10 gates and 11 aircraft parking places for the growth in commercial flights at the airport. The estimated cost of the expansion would be between $20 million and $30 million, much of which would be paid for by grants from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Airport Executive Director Patrick Dame said the demand for more capacity in the airline terminal is already there, with the increased service Rapid City is seeing during the summer months.
"We are progressing towards the terminal piece of the project. That is a definite need," Dame said. "You hate to say that you are behind on something, but again as we've been growing through this the demand is there. It's not a matter of if we build it, they will come. This demand is there."
Airport staff is projecting the expanded terminal may be completed within the next five to 10 years, and funding for the project would come from a mix of federal grants, state funding and the airport's capital fund.
"These are federally eligible projects, but as you get into terminals, they do have proration that come with them," Dame said. "Terminals tend to be an area where you have more local funding because certain areas of the terminal are ineligible for federal funding."
Dame explained that areas where passengers travel through the terminal building are typically eligible for federal funding, but areas "behind the scenes" like offices and baggage handling typically are not eligible for federal grants.
The Airport Board also gave master plan direction on their preference to construct a new main runway parallel to the existing runway and use the existing runway as a taxiway. The cost of that project is estimated to be between $70 million and $85 million.
The new runway would sit east of the existing one and would be constructed in the next 10-15 years. The existing 8,700-foot runway was last resurfaced in 1997, Dame said, and is beginning to show its age.
At an April 27 meeting, KLJ Engineering provided the Airport Board with two options related to the runway — reconstruct it in the current location, or relocate it east.
Although reconstruction of the runway would cost an estimated $55 million, it would take two to three "construction seasons" to complete. Because of South Dakota's winter weather, the construction season is from late spring through early fall and would require extensive airport closures for the work to be completed.
That wouldn't work well for Rapid City, as the summer tourist season is the busiest time at the airport, KLJ Engineering's Matt Nisbet said in April.
"Your airport plays a vital role in the region and if it was shut down for multiple construction seasons, which is tourism season, it would be a very significant issue," he said.
At Tuesday's meeting, Dame said the Airport Board's recommendations will be integrated into the master plan for future action.
"Again, these are plans. We're doing a 20-year plan, so it's not like we can't make a future decision if things change as we go through this," he said.
A federal grant for more than $1 million will help fund an after-school program at South Middle School starting this fall.
Black Hills Special Services Cooperative was awarded $1,071,244 by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Academic Improvement to support an after-school Discovery program at South Middle School. This will be the first after-school program for middle school students in Rapid City, although BHSSC runs a middle school program in Belle Fourche. There are four existing programs at RCAS elementary schools — Beadle, Knollwood, Valley View and Rapid Valley.
BHSSC’s 21st Century programs are intended to enhance learning opportunities for students living in high-need, high-poverty areas. There are after-school programs that run until 6 p.m., in addition to the summer programs that run from June to July.
“We’re still working with the school so [the program] can be an extension of the school day, not separate from it,” Deputy Executive Director Pam Lange, who also oversees the Community, Family & Special Services Division, told the Journal on Tuesday. “Staff members will be teachers from the school so there is a smooth transition [from the school day]. Teachers can do tutoring and homework help, which will help because they know what the students need.”
South Middle School was chosen as a new location because two years ago it was identified as a targeted assistance school, meaning many students there had low attendance rates and test scores as well as a concentration of students living in high poverty. One of the main criteria for eligibility for the grant is a poverty rate of over 40%.
As a result, South Middle reached out to BHSSC asking them to write a grant for the 21st Century program. Last year they also submitted a grant application, but it was denied. When it was approved this year, Lange said everyone was excited.
“We’re very excited; this will offer the kiddos a huge opportunity. Over the last five years there has been a large increase of students [experiencing] trauma and poverty [in the South Middle area], so this will provide a safe place they can stay and continue their learning,” Lange said.
In addition to academics, Discovery programs host social and emotional trainers that teach students coping strategies and work with them to help them be successful.
The grant, which spans five years, will help pay personnel and volunteers, as well as bolster the program’s large supply budget. The grant will offer more money in the first year — around $219,000 — so that the program can get off the ground, but over the subsequent four years the remaining funds will be equally distributed.
The programs, many of which are STEM-oriented, involve many hands-on activities for which supplies are needed. The programs allow students extra time to delve deeper into subject areas where they need additional help.
“The summer programs are very hands-on, experimental, and theme-based. All of the academics are centered around a weekly theme and there is a field trip at the end of the week,” Lange said.
For example, for a computer programming week, students would build a computer by hand, meet professional coders, and take a field trip to South Dakota Mines to talk to computer science professors and students.
The after-school program is club-based, and BHSSC can offer a variety of clubs that the school district normally wouldn’t have due to funding and staffing. Clubs are run on a six-week rotation, so if students are interested in a variety of subjects they have a chance to experience them all.
BHSSC tracks students’ academic success, and Lange said programs have been “very effective”: Students who attend BHSSC programs have higher attendance rates and lower behavioral referral rates in school.
The South Middle School program will only be open to its students. There won’t be a summer program at the middle school this summer, but Lange said BHSSC will start planning in July to begin the after-school program in September.
BHSSC plans to hold a week-long orientation at South for sixth-graders to transition into middle school, as well as an end-of-the-year orientation for South Middle eighth-graders to prepare for high school. Next June, the South Middle summer program will launch.
While the grant funding will jump start the new program, Lange said BHSSC is “very grateful” for its partnership with Rapid City Area Schools. Additionally, she said the programs couldn’t happen without the collaboration and support of over 30 community leaders and area businesses.
Four other community-based organizations and school districts in the state were awarded funds, all around $1 million: the Boys and Girls Club of the Northern Plains/Yankton, Red Cloud Indian School, Three Rivers Special Services Cooperative–Kadoka Academy and Rural Connections, and the Wilmot School District's After-School Program.
For more information on the 21st Century Programs, visit https://bhssc.org/discovery/.