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Backers Aim for Tourism Takeoff at Blytheville Air Base

4 min read

Backers of a proposed Cold War museum at the former Eaker Air Force Base in Blytheville see the project as a centerpiece of historic attractions that dot northeast Arkansas.

The region encompasses the Historic Dyess Colony featuring Johnny Cash’s boyhood home and the Hampson Archeological Museum in Wilson, which is also near the Great River Road National Scenic Byway.

Barrett Harrison, president of the Blytheville-Gosnell Regional Airport Authority and a former Blytheville mayor, said a museum could take its place among the existing attractions and complete a circuit of tourism for visitors to the region.

“This could be the anchor for all of those things,” Harrison said.

An eight-member committee has been formed and a feasibility study has projected healthy attendance and revenue, Harrison said. Next up is an architectural-engineering evaluation of the facility, which will help determine the overall price tag.

Plans include restoring existing buildings, commemorating the base’s history and origin as a U.S. Army airfield and acquiring planes representing the base’s mission as a Strategic Air Command (SAC) installation during the Cold War. Eaker Air Force Base, which housed B-52 bombers among other craft, was decommissioned in 1992.

“The neat thing about ours is it hadn’t been used for any other purpose and everything was just sitting there like it was when the base closed,” Harrison said.

Harrison said Blytheville has been pushing the museum idea since 2001, when city representatives made a semi-regular visit to Arkansas’ elected officials in Washington, D.C.

The former SAC base impressed Department of the Interior and the National Park Service representatives, Barrett said, but the project didn’t have much momentum until a member of the park service called in 2016 expressing the department’s interest in preserving Cold War installations.

“So he was doing research to determine where they all were and what kind of shape they were in and if any of them could be converted and so on and so on,” Harrison said.

The Minnesota-based Strategic Performance Group conducted the feasibility study, projecting close to 45,000-50,000 visitors between the proposed museum’s first and second years, with an economic impact of $11 million, Harrison said.

Harrison said Blytheville’s central, geographic location is ideal, and its position alongside Interstate 55 and proximity to the Missouri-Arkansas State line and welcome center offer a potential tourism pool. He said welcome center visitors often ask about the former base, currently inhabited by a number of businesses, facilities and an active airport.

A Cold War attraction at a decommissioned missile silo in South Dakota drew 147,000 visitors last year, Harrison said. Employees there told the Blytheville group its museum could draw better because there would simply be more to see on a formerly active air base.

Harrison put the potential price tag anywhere between $5 million-$25 million. Facilities would have to be brought up to Americans With Disabilities Act code and power restored, plus the museum’s backers are committed to acquiring a B-52 and a KC-135 tanker for display.

Finding and shipping a plane from a boneyard versus obtaining one being decommissioned are challenges that could affect the overall cost, Harrison said.

He said the committee had a Sunday meeting with Hardlines Design, an architecture firm based in Columbus, Ohio, and hopes to hire the firm soon for the site evaluation, raising the $25,000 fee from private money. Once completed, preferably by the end of August or early September, the evaluation would firm up the museum project’s cost.

Christened Blytheville Army Airfield when it opened in 1942, it was a flight training center then a personnel processing station before it closed after WWII.

In the 1950s SAC reopened the base and converted it to a single-mission bomber base. Different squadrons, air wings and divisions made the base home, and it played roles in Cold War alerts and operations in Vietnam, the Grenada operation of 1983 and in Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s. 

It was renamed Eaker Air Force Base in 1988 and decommissioned on Dec. 5, 1992, during a round of base closures at the Cold War’s end.

The impact included drastic population losses and a 5 percent unemployment rate increase in the first year after the closure. Harrison said that in one day Blytheville, which once had a population of 26,000, lost 6,000 people.

The population has continued to trend downward and was at 14,375 in the most recent census. While Harrison doesn’t expect the population to rebound to what it was during Eaker’s glory days, he said reusing the facility as a historic site could certainly help the local economy and those who live in the area now.

“We’re going to open it up and Blytheville and northeast Arkansas will have one heck of a nice tourist venue,” Harrison said.

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