- Associated Press - Friday, April 7, 2017

SALINA, Kan. (AP) - It was 50 years ago that Schilling Air Force Base officially closed.

By that time, it had been almost two years since the thousands of airmen who had been stationed at the Salina base and their families left and the Salina Airport Authority was created to implement the community’s plan to create jobs and replace the lost government payroll.

The Schilling Institute, which ultimately became Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus, and a vocational-technical school, now known as Salina Area Technical College, had also already been launched, and the first flights had taken off from the airport now known as Salina Regional Airport after it was relocated from what is now Markley Road.

The “swords-to-plow shares” transformation of Salina was well under way by this date. However, today is noteworthy because 50 years ago the “4253 Airbase Squadron” sign was taken down, and the few Air Force personnel who remained onsite closed their office door for good.

“The repurposing process was well underway by the time that order came about,” said Tim Rogers, executive director of the airport authority. “Several businesses had already started to occupy that space. Once the community accepted the closure, things began to happen fairly quickly.”

About that time, the owners of Tony’s Pizzeria, a local restaurant, came up with the idea of selling frozen pizzas for people to bake at home. The company that produced frozen pizzas started on former base property and has since grown into Salina’s largest employer owned by Schwan’s Food Co., Rogers said.

“They continue to invest in the community with the Tony’s Pizza Events Center, and they’ve reinforced their commitment to Salina by planning $70 million in improvements to their current facility,” Rogers said.

He said that over the years other local industries have been launched on former base property, including El Dorado National, which makes public transit buses; Vortex, which makes valves used in bulk solids manufacturing; and Veris Technologies, which is pioneering the use of soil sensors on plows.

“Today, the airport authority manages 1.6 million square feet of hangar, warehouse and manufacturing space,” Rogers said. “We always have openings, and we’re working with existing tenants.”

Although the transition was difficult at the time, Rogers said the general consensus is that Salina is better off today than the community would have been by now if the base had continued to operate. He said the $12 million payroll that the 5,000 or so airmen earned in 1965 has long since been eclipsed by employment from the variety of entities utilizing the former base.

The Salina Journal (https://bit.ly/2nShCkz ) reports that according to a Docking Institute study, the businesses and organizations located at the airport and airport industrial center accounted for about 60 percent of the total economic activity in Saline County in 2014. The area provided 6,459 jobs, 17.3 percent of employment in the county, and generated total economic activity of $1.58 billion that year, according to the study.

“The success stories are just very prevalent out here from private sector to the educational sector to human services,” Rogers said. “What they saw as a possibility 50 years ago is still being realized today.”


Information from: The Salina (Kan.) Journal, https://www.salina.com

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