2017-09-28 / Front Page

Kincheloe Marks A Redevelopment Success Story

Celebration Is Saturday at Old Air Base
By Erich T. Doerr

There was a time decades ago when massive B-52 bombers and nimble F-106 Delta Dart interceptors could be seen in the skies above Kinross Township as they flew in and out of the Kincheloe Air Force Base. That era came to an end when the United States government closed the base on September 30, 1977, but from its ashes arose a new phoenix as the local government and area business owners teamed up to form the Chippewa County Economic Development Corporation (EDC) and redevelop the old base area. It became a commercial airport, an industrial park, private housing, and it hosts prisons. The successful conversion of the former air base property will be the topic of a 40th anniversary celebration at the Chippewa County International Airport Saturday, September 30, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The celebration will include several activities and displays focusing on the use of the airport and the surrounding area since its conversion. There will be a period of public use of its long runway, displays of civilian aircraft and the products produced in the industrial park, dedication ceremonies, and tours of the airport’s terminal and hangars. Kinross Township previously held a smaller celebration in 1997 on the 20th anniversary of the base’s conversion.

“We’re very excited about the progress the community has made,” Airport Manager Tami Beseau said. “We’re proud the EDC has been successful in bringing this area back.”

The 7,200-foot runway will close to air traffic at 9 a.m. and remain closed until about noon for the celebration. The first event at 9 a.m. will be a 5K torch run on the runway coordinated by volunteers from the Michigan Department of Corrections and the Kinross Lions Club. The run is intended as a fundraiser with the proceeds going to the Lions Club and the Special Olympics Michigan’s Law Enforcement Torch Run.

The runway will be made available to walkers at 10:15 a.m. before both children and adults will have an opportunity to ride their bicycles on it at 11:30 a.m. The runway was 12,000 feet by 300 feet back in its air base days, long enough to handle the giant B-52s, but reduced to a 7,200 feet by 150 feet size during the changeover to civilian use. It is still one of the longest runways in the Upper Peninsula.

Many of the displays will be housed inside a large hangar at the airport, including ones featuring civilian aircraft, modern and antique snow removal equipment, and photographs and information about the base’s history. There were plans to have some military aircraft on display, but due to the demands of recent hurricane and forest fire response efforts, it is unlikely that they will be featured. The manufacturers from the community’s Chippewa County Air/Industrial Park will have displays featuring the products they make; examples will include one from a company that makes animal bedding and another from a company that makes a variety of equipment ranging from parts for CT scan machines and forklifts to fracking pumps. United States military recruiters and both the Michigan Department of Corrections Honor Guard and Emergency Response Team (ERT) will all be in attendance for the festivities.

A dedication ceremony will take place at 3 p.m. to officially name the airport’s conference area as the Kincheloe Conference Room in recognition of the service of the late flying ace Iven C. Kincheloe, Jr., the namesake of the former air base. Mr. Kincheloe, a captain in the United States Air Force and a native of Michigan, set a record as a test pilot flying the Bell X-2 when he flew up to a peak altitude of 126,000 feet in September 1956. He attained the rank of ace after shooting down five MiGs during the Korean War and he received numerous honors in his career including the Silver Star and three Distinguished Flying Crosses. He lost his life in the Californian crash of an F-104 Starfighter in July 1958. The ceremony may include a video from Mr. Kincheloe’s children.

A second dedication ceremony will take place at 3:15 p.m. as Michigan Avenue will be officially renamed Noel Way in recognition of Kathy Noel, an EDC employee hired just after the base closed who then worked for the organization for more than two decades. She eventually became the organization’s president before her 2014 retirement. The road connects M- 80 to the industrial park. The Noel Way dedication will be followed at 3:30 p.m. by a ceremony to recognize past and present EDC board members.

Kincheloe has become a popular location for pushing vehicles to their limits during its civilian years. General Motors has brought vehicles to the community for winter testing near the airport since 1987, while the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) has set up slalom courses here for autocross competitions. The SCCA is scheduled to have a display of vehicles on site Saturday. GM leases property and buildings from the EDC each winter for its research and development efforts with special test surfaces prepared for their use. The Kincheloe testing area was Chippewa County’s first, but the county is now home to three winter automotive test tracks, bringing in millions of dollars to the local economy.

A video display will also recount when a Hollywood movie was shot at the Chippewa County Airport. Scenes for the 1990 blockbuster “Die Hard 2,” starring Bruce Willis, saw the airport double for a blizzard-bound Washington Dulles International Airport. The film initially planned to film at Denver’s now defunct Stapleton International Airport, but unseasonably warm temperatures there melted the snow and sent the film crew to Michigan to work at the Alpena County Regional Airport. When Alpena, too, had issues with a lack of snow, some of the film crew moved further north to work at Kinross in March 1990.

Kincheloe Air Force Base’s closure was initially very damaging to the economy of Chippewa County; the area lost 750 civilian jobs that relied on the base in addition to all of the military ones. The county’s unemployment figures reached to 28% and millions of dollars in business was gone. When the USAF left the area the airport’s massive runway, hundreds of base homes, and 7,000 acres of land, including 50 hangars and commercial buildings, were left without a purpose. The EDC was formed to repurpose them by the Chippewa County Board of Commissioners and local businesses with the goal of managing a civilian airport on the property, reusing many of the military buildings for other purposes, and promoting non-aeronautical development in the area while Kinross Township and real estate developers worked to repurpose the housing and commercial buildings.

The State of Michigan secured the title to some former barracks complexes and undeveloped land in the area then worked with the EDC to redevelop the structures into a medium security prison. The success of this effort led to the state building three more correctional facilities in the area later on, creating 1,000 new jobs directly and hundreds of additional spin off jobs in the community.

The EDC manages the Chippewa County Airport formed from the air base’s runway and some of the hangars, attracting commercial airline flights. Service has increased over the years with the southbound flights that stopped twice on the way to Detroit Metropolitan Airport back in the 1980s replaced today by two nonstop daily flights drawing in 45,000 passengers through the airport’s doors every year. The EDC also started leasing and selling many of the other old air base hangars to light industrial companies, creating more than 200 jobs in the resulting industrial park.

Many of the military housing units constructed for life at the base remain in use today after having been sold off to private citizens and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. Some were relocated, while others were sold or leased at their original sites. Kinross Township’s efforts to bring more commercial business to the area resulted in more than 250 jobs spread across various industries, including the grocery sales, gas station, banking, retail, eatery, government, and recreation industries.

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