O s c o d a
The Town That Almost Wasn't
by Andrew L. McFarlane
A friend and I were talking about Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda a while ago.
"Have you been there?" he asked. "The lawns are all mowed, but nobody lives there. It's spooky."
As a person who sometimes views the world as a story waiting to be written and who had already slated a Ghost Stories issue at the monthly editorial meeting, I had bells tolling in my head.
I drove through the closed base recalling that conversation, down streets disused for so long that here and there a plant grew through the cracks and named to evoke home for thousands of young men and women. California. Elm. Kansas. I passed row upon row of vacant houses. Neat. Orderly. Empty. It looked like something out of a 1950s war scare movie. But it is a scene that has been played out all over the country in the last few years.
This could have been the future of the entire Oscoda-Au Sable community. It could have been a real ghost story. Three years ago when the closure of Wurtsmith took effect, the conventially wise were ready to write the obituary of this "Sunrise Side" town. With that closure came the loss of 600 civilian jobs and the income of 3200 military personell, a total of about 35 million dollars per year.
Those are figures that would make most community leaders, business people and residents flee. They did not, and what they did do is the real story here.
Dean Wiltse owns Wiltse's Restaurant, not more than a block from the front gate of Wurtsmith. Interspersed with the collage of historical area photos are a number of testaments to the importance of the Air Force to his business. A photo of a bomber being loaded and guarded on the runway, a frank statement from an air force officer on the mission of the Strategic Air Command, a four-star commendation from the Air Force for Wiltse's.
"A lot of people thought we were finished when the base closed," Dean began. "But I think that in some sense, having the base here was almost a threat because it caused a lot of investment to be withheld. Now the economy has really diversified."
Abe Kahn is the Director of Sales and Marketing for the Oscoda Office for Economic Development. The Office is charged with a fairly comprehensive role:
1. To retain and expand existing business
When asked for his assement of how well that role has been fulfilled to date, he responded, "We have done extremely well. To date there are 23 new businesses in operation on the base. These businesses have created 800 new jobs with an average pay of $25,000 per year as compared to the $15,000 paid by the Air Force."
2. To attract new business
3. To recruit trade shows for their special center
4. To market the more than 1,000 vacant homes
5. To revitalize the downtown area
While pointing out that these new jobs have more than offset the civilian jobs lost when the Air Force pulled out, Mr. Kahn acknowledges that there is still a lot of work left to be done.
Dean Wiltse offered these final thoughts, "The closure really caused the community to reassess its strengths and weaknesses. For a rural community, we really have a lot going for us -- a major runway and of course the water and outdoors. I think that the people who have stayed here are in it for the long haul."
Oscoda Office for Economic Development
517-739-6999 | fax 739-0034
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