Duluth News Tribune: Lawmakers urge solution in Duluth base exchange closing
A delegation of Minnesota's federal lawmakers is calling for a Duluth store used by Northland veterans and service members to reconsider plans to close.
Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, along with Rep. Rick Nolan, penned a letter last week asking the Army and Air Force Exchange Service to reconsider its plans to close the discount and tax-free store, citing potential hardships for current and retired military service personnel.
But a spokesman for the government agency, which is part of the Department of Defense, said the closure is not based on any decision it made.
"We had to get out of there," said Exchange spokesman Chris Ward. "They're turning that building over to the city."
Responsibility for closing the base exchange (BX in military parlance) — located at 4970 Airport Road, not far from Cirrus Aircraft — has proven to be a hot potato. Multiple entities involved denied active roles in the Exchange's pending closure.
"It was a decision between the Air National Guard and the base Exchange," said Blaine Peterson, director of operations for the Duluth Airport Authority. "The existing relationship was functional for us."
But 148th Fighter Wing spokeswoman Jodi Grayson said it is facing a sunsetting date of June 30 to turn over the property to the city of Duluth. It's a date that "has been extended a few times," Grayson said. "But they won't extend it any more."
City spokeswoman Pakou Ly wrote the News Tribune to say, "Based on our understanding, this site is owned and managed by the Airport Authority, technically part of the city."
In a conference call with the News Tribune, Blaine Peterson and Airport Authority spokeswoman Natalie Peterson made the point that the Airport Authority was not acting as landowner.
"We had no role in the decision to not continue that lease on that location," Blaine Peterson said. "We simply were there to manage that land lease."
The Minnesota Air National Guard's 148th Fighter Wing has rented the lot on which the Exchange is located for decades.
The lease between the city and 148th calls for the lot to be restored to its original condition, Blaine Peterson said. To that end, the 148th will demolish the Exchange facility and remove hazardous materials on the lot in advance of June 30.
In a statement to the News Tribune following a telephone interview, Grayson said discussions between the 148th and Airport Authority continue, but that "the 148th has received no formal indication that a lease extension would be granted."
The property, Grayson's statement continued, "is to be returned to the DAA in pristine condition ... to be used for future development by the DAA."
There are no current plans for the site once it is vacated and restored to green space, Blaine Peterson said.
"That doesn't mean two or three years from now some other entity won't move in there," Natalie Peterson said.
Sources for this story explained that the Exchange, in its current location, had once been a part of the Duluth Air Force Base that closed in the early 1980s. Since then, it has been uniquely situated outside the footprint of the 148th Fighter Wing base. Most Exchange facilities throughout the world exist on the bases they serve.
In their letter to the Exchange, Klobuchar, Franken and Nolan said they were concerned the closing would negatively affect local military personnel and force them to use the next nearest facility, located in the Twin Cities.
"We strongly urge you to reconsider the plans to close the Duluth store and encourage you to work with the National Guard and City of Duluth to find an alternative space," they said.
In its own letter to Exchange operators dated last October, the 148th told the Exchange there was no room on the local Air Guard base to move the store. In the letter, the 148th said it "sympathizes with the predicament" and "over the years our Wing has put forth great effort in attempt to avoid this situation."
The 148th's letter explained it does not have 1,500 to 1,700 square feet of space to donate within its current footprint or future development plans. The base, said the letter written by Lt. Col. Ryan Kaspari, is already 10 percent beyond authorized square footage.
Kaspari added that he hoped "a sufficient space becomes available in the years to come."
Efforts to find alternative locations around the base have come up empty, with Ward saying, "Nothing was suitable to allow another store to open up."