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FORT SMITH, Ark. (Tribune News Service) — It’s being called the single largest economic development project for Arkansas in over 20 years, but a fighter jet mission returning to Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith will also be a cultural boost for the area.

On Thursday, the Air Force announced the Arkansas Air National Guard base was chosen as the preferred host site for a long-term contract with a multinational contingent of fighter jets to begin in 2023.

Hundreds of families will move to Fort Smith over the coming years from Singapore and Europe. Fort Smith Mayor George McGill said it will be the biggest cultural impact for the Fort Smith region since the 1970s when Fort Chaffee served as a staging area for Southeast Asian refugees after the fall of Saigon.

Fort Smith will become a pilot training center to support F-16 and F-35 fighter planes purchased by Singapore, Switzerland, Finland, Poland and other countries participating in the Foreign Military Sales program.

The Singapore unit and a dozen F-16 planes will begin to arrive on base by 2023, relocating from the Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, where the base is maxing out on the number of aircraft it can hold. At least one dozen F-35s for the training program would arrive in 2026.

McGill anticipates the region will make these pilots, their families, and crew members feel welcome. During the review process for the contract, a Singapore Air Force colonel asked McGill what it would be like for families moving to Fort Smith.

“They will feel at home,” McGill said he told the colonel. “The airbase is an asset, but at the end of the day the relationships with citizens and our diversity is what gives us the edge.”

As an example of the diversity in the city, Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tim Allen said there were more than two dozen languages spoken by students in the Fort Smith Public School District.

“One of the selling points for Fort Smith on this has been our diversity,” Allen said. “That sealed the deal.”

Physician students at the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education in Chaffee Crossing, and physicians recruited by Mercy and Baptist also increase the area’s diversity profile. McGill noted the significant Southeast Asian population in Fort Smith that was retained after their arrival at Fort Chaffee starting in 1975 because of the education programs offers at WestArk, now University of Arkansas-Fort Smith.

Buddhist temples, Jewish synagogues, and Muslim mosques can be found in Fort Smith along with many Christian churches. Buddhism is practiced by one-third of the general population in Singapore, according to the World Atlas.

McGill mentioned that letters of support for the project were signed by community leaders from northwest Arkansas to Greenwood.

Numbers provided by the military to the chamber estimate an $800 million to $1 billion annual economic impact for the area.

“This is an absolute game-changer for Fort Smith,” Allen said. “I’m confident in saying it’s equivalent to getting an automotive manufacturing facility in our city. Everybody is going to benefit in the entire region.”

About 345 U.S. military personnel are expected to move to the Fort Smith area in 2023 as part of the fighter jet mission. Added to that will be more than 180 members of the Singapore Air Force squadron, and around 300 dependents for two years or more at a time. Training for F-35 aircraft for European countries will be part of the mission to begin in 2026.

Allen said commitments have been made by the Fort Smith Public Schools and the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith to accommodate any education needs for English as a second language. The educational institutions already have adult and K-12 programs available.

During the next two years, work will be done at Ebbing Air National Guard Base to upgrade facilities and prepare for the mission. McGill said a runway expansion at Fort Smith Regional Airport was already in the planning phase before the competition began.

The Department of the Air Force will conduct an environmental impact analysis to confirm Ebbing can support the new F-35 and F-16 missions, an Air Force news release noted.

“In the rare case the environmental impact analysis determines the preferred location unsuitable,” Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan was named an alternate location, the release added. The Department of the Air Force anticipates making the final basing decision in spring 2023.

McGill said Ebbing is no stranger to environmental assessments and he has confidence the base will pass inspection to become the new location for the fighter jets.

There are currently no military aircraft based at Ebbing. The 188th Fighter Wing’s A-10 Warthogs last flew out of Ebbing in 2014. The unit then switched to an unmanned flight mission with remotely piloted aircraft.

“It’s just a huge deal,” said Sam T. Sicard, president of First National Bank of Fort Smith. “It is one of the biggest announcements not just in the state but in the nation. It’s quite an affirmation of all the great things we have here.”

Sicard said it was hard not to see how every facet of the local economy will be impacted by the new training mission at Ebbing because it is “new dollars coming into the community.”

“Banking is a service industry that doesn’t necessarily bring new dollars into the community,” Sicard said. “The jobs that really move the needle are those that bring new dollars into the community. This is also tax dollars coming back, being reinvested into the community. And it’s recurring.”

Beneficiaries will include the housing market, retail businesses, restaurants, the hotel industry and construction companies associated with the Ebbing base upgrades. Tourist destinations in the region and companies that cater to outdoor activities could also see an uptick.

Another aspect to take into consideration, Sicard said, is the influx of technical talent that will come to the area with Ebbing’s additional mission.

Sicard said this “circular pinwheel of positive economic impact” extends into the investments being made in the Fort Smith public school facilities and the additional state funding that will come from more enrollment as more families move to the area. Sports teams may also see some additional talent with students from other nations.

“There are so many factors of what the impact is, and you just never know what an entrepreneurial spouse may do, or their children or a family member who sees this as a great place to work or retire,” Sicard said.

(c)2021 Times Record (Fort Smith, Ark.)

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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon assigned to the 555th Fighter Squadron takes off during exercise Falcon Strike at Aviano Air Base, Italy, June 4, 2021.
A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon assigned to the 555th Fighter Squadron takes off during exercise Falcon Strike at Aviano Air Base, Italy, June 4, 2021. (Ericka Woolever/U.S. Air Force)
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