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The local economics of fighter jets


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    Lt. Col. Luke Ahmann currently flies F-16s for the Vermont Air National Guard.

    - Nancy Marshall-Genzer

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    Eleven-hundred people work at the Vermont Air National Guard base.

    - Nancy Marshall-Genzer

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    Frank Cioffi is president of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation.

    - Frank Cioffi

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    One of the homes in South Burlington that was deemed uninhabitable because of fighter jet noise.

    - Nancy Marshall-Genzer

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    Carmine Sargent stands in front of her home.  She calls her neighborhood, "Little Detroit."

    - Nancy Marshall-Genzer

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    Chris Hurd is a Burlington realtor and F-35 opponent.

    - Nancy Marshall-Genzer

The Air Force looked at a number of bases nationwide before deciding to put some of its new Joint Strike Fighters, or  F-35s, in Vermont. The Burlington community was divided over the planes, with both sides making economic arguments.  

The F-35s will replace aging F-16s at the Vermont Air National Guard base. Pilots, says Lt. Col. Luke Ahmann, patrol in upstate New York, over the Adirondacks and then the White Mountains over New Hampshire, and then northern Maine.

Some 1,100 people work at the base. F-35 supporters say without the new plane, the F-16s here would be retired and everyon who flies them or works on them would be fired. 

"This is about retaining 1,100 jobs and the economic benefits that accompany those jobs here," says Frank Cioffi, president of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation.

As Cioffi and I chat at the Burlington airport, a fighter jet takes off from the nearby base. Cioffi says it's an F-16. 

Noise from the F-16s already at the base figures into the economic argument of the F-35’s opponents. They say the F-35 would be even noisier. The federal government has already decided noise from the base’s F-16s made about 200 houses in South Burlington uninhabitable. Many homeowners were bought out. Now their houses sit vacant not far from Carmine Sargent’s home. She calls her neighborhood little Detroit, "because it’s gone into disrepair."

"Home values have declined," she says, down about 15 to 20 percent. F-35 supporters say there’s been no change in value. Both sides commissioned studies to support their claims.

Sargent wants me to see the abandoned homes. We hop in the car, accompanied by Chris Hurd, a realtor who also opposes the F-35s. Sargent is behind the wheel, pointing at some dark, empty houses. 

“And these are all empty now and boarded up," she says.

Later, realtor Chris Hurd tells me, nobody wants jobs to be lost. But homeowners have a case to make, too.

“Part of it is a values question," he says. "Part of it is an economic question.” 

And the questions aren’t going away. F-35 opponents have filed several lawsuits, challenging the decision to base the F-35s in Vermont. 

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

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