By Krystal Spring/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's plans to construct an immigration and customs enforcement air base in Great Falls has local city officials and business leaders scrambling to find out why Havre wasn't chosen for the new base, or if the town was even considered in the process.
"I didn't know anything about it until I read something about the base in the paper," Havre City Council member Allen "Woody" Woodwick said this week. "I really believe Havre would be the ideal location for the base."
Woodwick, along with several city and community leaders, started a grassroots effort last week, urging the state's congressional delegation and the Department of Homeland Security to consider Havre as a site for the base.
"We have the infrastructure and amenities the new base will need and we're only 34 miles away from the border; it just makes sense," Woodwick said.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice said that as soon as he heard about the new base coming to Montana two weeks ago, he started calling officials in Washington, D.C., and Montana to see if Havre was being considered for the facility, but didn't come up with the answers he had hoped for.
"I heard that (the Department of Homeland Security) looked at seven different locations in Montana," Rice said.
Rice said he heard that security issues were a concern when the department looked at the Havre area, which he said surprised him, considering Havre has an FBI presence and is home to a Border Patrol station.
Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Paw Development Corp., said he believes the Havre community as a whole was unaware that a new security base was being considered for construction in Montana.
"The public announcement of this new Homeland Security base and its location in Great Falls came as a surprise to myself and to every local government official along the Hi-Line," Tuss said in a letter to U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont. "(We) have concern over the process the federal government used to make this site location decision."
Tuss' letter goes on to list the assets Havre could offer the new base, including the multistate Sector Headquarters of the U.S. Border Patrol, an existing Coast Guard presence, FBI personnel, and two border crossings that include U.S. Customs.
According to Montana's congressional delegation, Great Falls has been chosen to house the new security base, which will be one of five dotting the Canadian border from Washington state to New York as a response to 9/11 and reports of drug smuggling out of Canada.
"Great Falls appears to be the site, and it doesn't appear that that will change," Gary Bracken, communications director for the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Air and Marine Operations in Washing-ton, D.C., said today.
The question to be resolved in where it will be located in Great Falls, he added.
The first base, in Bellingham, Wash., recently began operations. A second station in Plattsburgh, N.Y., will be opened in October, Bracken said. The other two facities will be in Michigan and North Dakota.
"I don't really know if Havre was considered," Bracken said earlier this week.
Bracken said a number of operational considerations were addressed when picking a site for the security base. He said the five facilities will be located about 500 miles apart, or an estimated two hours by air.
"That overlaps station to station," Bracken said. "We have to consider a number of things. We look at possible sites from both an operational and infrastructure standpoint."
Bracken said the new bases will help beef up security along the border and provide a wide range of support to federal and state law enforcement agencies, including surveillance, patrol and airspace security.
The U.S. Border Patrol already conducts border surveillance flights out of Havre.
The Border Patrol has one full-time pilot in Havre patrolling the Canadian Border by helicopter eight hours a day, said David Bernard, assistant chief for the U.S. Border Patrol in Havre. Its air patrol will soon increase.
"(Customs and Border Protection) headquarters out of D.C. decided to add one plus pilots" to the current patrol, Bernard said. A second pilot was recently added to fly the training airplane. Bernard said he expects additional pilots to be added in Havre in the future.
The Great Falls base could begin some operations early next year, said Brad Keena, spokesman for Rehberg. The base will operate flights eight hours a day initially, but additional flights will eventually be added to bring the base to a 24-hour facility.
The state's congressional delegation applauded the Department of Homeland Security's efforts to construct a base in Montana.
"This new base will provide critical reinforcements in our fight against terrorism and smuggling across the border with Canada, and it'll mean more good-paying jobs for Montanans," Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said in a press release.
Woodwick said the facility, which will bring in about 70 employees, will be a boost to the town and the economy where it's located - benefits he wishes the Havre community could have gained.
"Until they actually break ground on this building, it's not a dead issue, at least to me," Woodwick said.