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Protect, build on lofty assets of local air base

Like so many other distinguished and defining assets of the Mahoning Valley, one robust institution in our community too often has been undervalued and taken for granted. That institution is the mammoth Youngstown Air Reserve Station in Vienna Township, home to the highly acclaimed 910th Airlift Wing.

In his recent in-depth report, our staff writer David Skolnick illustrated why Valley residents have much to be proud of in the Trumbull County military installation that next year will mark its 70th anniversary.

Clearly, YARS’ rich history, current impact and promising future provide much to appreciate and celebrate. They also give us all good reason to work to ensure it remains a vital cog in our community’s economy and our nation’s defenses for many decades to come.

The Air Force Reserve base got off to a rousing start in 1952 when a crowd of more than 50,000 people attended its grand opening and sky show. Then-Mayor Charles Henderson lauded the opening, telling base officials the city of Youngstown and surrounding area was safer now with the robust military installation in our backyard.

Though the nature and scope of its missions have changed over the past seven decades, its importance to the region as a vital driver of economic activity only has accelerated.

Today, YARS has become a city of its own. With 71 buildings spread out amid a 321-acre expanse adjacent to Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport, the $1 billion physical plant has become the No. 1 employer in Trumbull County with 2,043 military and civilian personnel and No. 3 in the entire Mahoning Valley, behind only Mercy Health-Youngstown and Youngstown State University.

With an annual payroll of $103 million and an additional $21 million in annual spending on the base, YARS wields a colossal economic impact on our region. In 2020, that impact totaled $137.3 million, which represents a $22 million boost from 2019. Such growth is even more laudable considering it came in a year when most pieces of the Valley’s economic livelihood grew increasingly anemic, suffering from pandemic-induced losses.

YARS’ value also is visible in the key defense and humanitarian missions the airlift wing carries out daily at the base and at exotic venues around the world. The base, for example, boasts the only large-area, fixed-wing aerial spray unit in the military. It controls undesirable vegetation and disease-carrying insects. As such, it literally has wiped out billions of enemy pests in hot spots all over the globe. No price tag can be placed on the value of that humanitarian act.

YARS also has undergone more than $47 million in recent and ongoing investments, including upgrades to its spray system, new lodging, a state-of-the-art firing range and an $8 million relocation and reconstruction of its main entry.

Yet despite all of the optimism, no one should ever take the air base for granted. We recall only too well the worries surrounding its very survival amid a flurry of Base Realignment and Closure rounds the Defense Department implemented over the years.

Fortunately, it survived all of them. But clearly, it remains critical that YARS survives any future rounds of base closings. While no additional BRAC actions are on the drawing board yet, growing anti-defense sentiment in the new Congress, coupled with calls for substantial cutbacks in the fiscal year 2022 Pentagon budget after years of growth during the administration of former President Donald J. Trump, make a strong case that anyone with a vested interest in the future of the base must work tirelessly to protect the YARS investment in our region.

Fortunately, a steadfast delegation of supporters in the Ohio congressional delegation led by U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Howland has for years worked toward that end. In addition, the Eastern Ohio Military Affairs Commission made up of community and military representation has as its prime mission the preservation and promotion of our region’s military strongholds.

Topping their priority list today is updating and / or expanding the fleet of C-130H cargo planes at the base with C-130J planes that boast more sophisticated technology, faster speeds and shorter takeoff and landing needs. The commission and our congressional delegation deserve support from throughout the Valley in lobbying for the new fleet, which no doubt also would guarantee a strong long-term presence for the air base.

Clearly, there’s plenty of space for YARS to soar higher as an asset for the Valley and as a valuable player in this country’s defense needs. Our region and our nation could not afford its loss.

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