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Miami Valley soars on wings of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base

Lisa Huang, President of Advanced Engineering Consultants in Columbus. Photos | Ben French
Lisa Huang, President of Advanced Engineering Consultants in Columbus. Photos | Ben French

If you think Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is merely a parking lot for planes and a layover for enlistees, you're as wrong at the folks who told Orville and Wilbur "it'll never fly."

That's because behind those gates, alongside those hangers, buzzing in those offices, is a mega-engine of business that's critical to the Ohio economy.

We're talking about a behemoth whose Metropolitan Statistical Area is identified by the U.S. Office and Management and Budget as consisting of Clark, Greene, Miami, Montgomery and Preble counties. One that is responsible, directly or indirectly, for nearly 56,000 Ohio jobs.

Mayor Joan L. Dautel of Fairborn says in her city's case, the average salary of civilian employees at the base is $40,000, "which would translate into income tax for us." Plus, "We have quite a few R&D companies located in Fairborn and those salaries are higher than the $40,000."

The base-town relationship is a close one, she says.

"Our city manager and the base commander or his representatives have several meetings a year for updates and impacts that might affect one or the other. We attend many events on the base and vice versa. Many people who work on the base, but might not live in Fairborn, visit our restaurants, especially the ones on Broad Street, during their lunch hours. The position of the main gate empties right out onto Broad Street and has easy access to Main Street and those shops and restaurants. WPAFB is an integral part of Fairborn and we enjoy having them as our neighbors."

Plenty of people have a vested interest in keeping the neighbors happy.

"Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is a critical engine of economic development for the Miami Valley," says Sen. Sherrod Brown. "In this current economic crisis, the Wright-Patt 2020 Committee represents an opportunity to create new jobs and strengthen Southwest Ohio's economy."

That committee, established by the Dayton Development Coalition and populated with local business and government leaders, is finding new ways to collaborate with the base – ways that will boost employment and, ultimately, help Ohio's sustainability.

The base already is directly responsible for 25,713 jobs and indirectly responsible for 30,277, according to Maureen Patterson, the Dayton Development Coalition's vice president for shareholder relations. And, there's good reason to expect those numbers to grow.

By 2011, some programs, such as aerospace medicine and sensors research, will be relocated from other Air Force facilities to Wright-Patt, as part of the Base Realignment and Closing program the government announced about five year ago. That has ignited plenty of business. According to an economic impact statement prepared by the base, in 2008, it spent more than $256 million on construction, services, and materials, equipment and supplies procurement. Plenty of Ohio businesses benefited from that. Lighthouse Technologies of Dayton is one.

The 10-year-old company performs software testing and training, IT project management, and related services. CEO Jeff Van Fleet says his company has been especially help to the Air Force as it begins using the Oracle Enterprise Resource Planning system.

"We leverage our best commercial practices as we do work on the DEAMS (Defense Enterprise Accounting and Management System) program which is transforming the Air Force financial system, the ECSS (Expeditionary Combat Support System) program which is transforming logistics and supply chain, as well as the Global Combat Support System," Van Fleet says.

Lighthouse did all commercial work for the first several years of its existence, "but realized that the Air Force could use the same capabilities as our commercial clients… We've only been doing government work for four years, and already, approximately half of our revenue comes from Wright-Patt. Additionally, we recently won a large five-year Army Enterprise Resource Planning project in Washington, D.C., based upon the work we have done for the Air Force at Wright-Patt. So, our investment at Wright-Patt continues to pay dividends," Van Fleet says.

Advanced Engineering Consultants Ltd., of Columbus, got its first five-year contract, from the 88th Air Base Wing at Wright-Patt. Another contract, for three years, followed. Other governmental entities, such as the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, became clients, too. Vice President Samuel C. Reed says AEC's experience with the base "absolutely" has enabled his firm to grow; revenue and staff size have doubled over the years.

AEC has worked on the Sensors Directorate Laboratory, Security Force Compound, Pipeline Dormitory, Student Activity Center and numerous other smaller projects. Last year the Air Force Materiel Command recognized AEC for concept design on the Sensors Directorate Laboratory Addition/Alteration project and for work on the Security Forces Operations Center.

And earlier this year, Peerless Technologies of Fairborn announced it was one of six winners of a mission support services contract to assist transitions from Brooks City-Base in Texas to Dayton as part of the base realignment and closing measures. This contract involves medical, environmental, information technology and research studies assistance.

To do that, Peerless has a team involving 17 partners. Seven are Dayton-based companies and organizations and four have Dayton operating locations.

Dr. Mark Gebhart, associate professor at the Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine and director of the National Center for Medical Readiness (NCMR) in Dayton, sees the magnitude of Wright-Patt's contribution to the area on both the personal, and the professional side.

"As a lifelong Daytonian, I've always seen how important the base is to the region," he says. "It's a catalyst for so many things – science, technology, education, medicine and health care, academia. It's part of the recipe for success for so many other things."

Certainly, the NCMR's location to the base – and its role in aerospace medicine – is no coincidence.

"There are warmer and sunnier locations where something like this could be established. But we had a leg up because the talent and the capacity that people around here could bring is huge," Gebhart says.


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