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More housing, schools top the list of needs for Ellsworth, commander says

Col. Joe Sheffield

Ellsworth Air Force Base Commander Col. Joseph Sheffield speaks at a meeting of the Black Hills Forum and Press Club on Monday at the Hilton Garden Inn in Rapid City.

Additional affordable housing options and updated schools are two of the top needs in the Rapid City and Box Elder areas as Ellsworth Air Force Base begins to prepare for expansion to accommodate the B-21 stealth bomber, the base commander said Monday.

Col. Joseph Sheffield spoke to members of the Black Hills Forum and Press Club on Monday about the preparations that are underway at Ellsworth to welcome more than 3,000 new airmen and their families who will be supporting the advanced bombers.

He said the base is projecting the need for 1,011 new homes in Rapid City, Box Elder and the surrounding area over the next few years to prepare for the B-21's arrival in the mid-2020s.

"We're in a dynamic environment that's competitive, fast-moving and the supply situation where we are at," Sheffield said. "We appreciate the partnerships that we have been trying to look at, like rental partner agreements. Also, the ability to understand housing as we continue to work with partners, developers and builders to get the job done."

Another priority for Ellsworth staff is to look at the situation of public education facilities in the Douglas School District and Rapid City Area Schools. Sheffield said building new schools and renovating existing facilities will likely be needed to deal with the projected growth of base personnel and families.

"I want people to say I want to go back to Ellsworth and I love the Black Hills. So, these are the things on their minds," Sheffield said. "Schools matter. Also, if you have someone who needs a little bit of extra attention or resources for learning disabilities — that's really important to us. We need to make sure we have those available and capable. We're working on that."

Sheffield projects that a significant portion of new airmen will have young families. He said there is an opportunity for additional childcare options in the area.

"There is a fair amount of dual-working parents or a single parent. So for them to be able to get to work and we do 24-hour shifts, that would be another big thing for us," Sheffield said.

Ellsworth AFB is celebrating their 80th year in the area. It was built as Rapid City Army Air Base in 1941 and began training operations in January 1942. Its mission now is to support and base the U.S. Air Force fleet of B-1B Lancers. Ellsworth also provides ground control stations for the Air Force's MQ-9 Reaper, more commonly called an unmanned aerial vehicle or drone, but none of the MQ-9 aircraft are stationed at the base.

The B-1s are nearing the end of their lifecycle, and Ellsworth was selected as the first base to receive the B-21 Raiders.

Sheffield said the B-21 is being assembled in Palmdale, California. Test flights are expected to begin at the end of 2022. He said he hopes the B-21 will be able to complete some of the test flights at Ellsworth, but that is yet to be determined.

The advanced aircraft will have conventional and nuclear bomb capabilities, eventually replacing the B-1 and the B-2 in the U.S. Air Force fleet. The nuclear capabilities means that several pieces of Ellsworth's existing infrastructure will need to be adapted and new structures will be completed.

Sheffield said some contracts to build have already been awarded, with work beginning in 2022. Because of the nature of the work, Sheffield said security protocols around Ellsworth will change.

"It will be a bit more sensitive on base, and we will work through protocols to adapt," he said.

Ellsworth has 5,356 acres of land, 328 buildings, 497 homes, six dormitories that house 742 airmen and 1.5 million square yards of airfield with a 13,500-foot runway. It is the second-largest employer with 3,300 active duty members and 720 civilians. The base personnel has 3,720 dependents in the area and 8,100 retirees.

Contact Nathan Thompson at nathan.thompson@rapidcityjournal.com.

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