'Sounds of Freedom' Fly High 10 Years after Big Decision
By Steve White, Grand Island Bureau Chief - bio | email
Ten years ago, on the night of March 6, 2003, community leaders in Grand Island and Kearney were on pins and needles awaiting a big decision.
A decade later, both communities prosper.
But it's Grand Island that hears the "sounds of freedom" of a National Guard helicopter base.
The applause in that cramped airport conference room has settled, but the community's enthusiasm for the National Guard has not.
"March 7, 2003, an outstanding day," Mayor Jay Vavricek said.
It's been called the day Grand Island grew up.
Vavricek said, "May be a watershed moment we can look back on, that is now so tremendous because of what other things have been accomplished."
It foreshadowed things to come for Grand Island like the relocation of the Nebraska State Fair, and ended what some describe as a losing streak.
Vavricek said, "There were a number of different opportunities where we were not successful in reaching out to employers so we thought, gosh, what are we doing wrong, how can we be successful?"
It came down to Grand Island or Kearney. Then-Governor Mike Johanns has no regrets.
"One of the best decisions I made was to choose Grand Island. That mission got up and going number one; and number two, the community got behind it, continues to be behind it," Sen. Johanns said.
Gov. Dave Heineman echoed those thoughts. He said, "Grand Island's been a strong supporter of the National Guard helicopter facility and so I'm proud of the work they've done. Our National Guard soldiers very much enjoy working out of the Grand Island area."
The first few years they worked on choppers in an airport hangar, one that was there because the community turned fire into opportunity.
Now the guard operates in a $20 million base.
And last summer, the guard broke ground on a $20 million Readiness Center to replace an aging armory.
Vavricek said that decision a decade ago will have an impact for many decades to come.
"Kind of set the tone for the future and now, ten years later, it's unbelievable what occurred, a day of pride," he said.
Some worried the Chinooks and support choppers would bring noise to the community.
But as he promised then, Mayor Jay Vavricek's words hold true.
"Hear those choppers go over our community – that's the sounds of freedom," he said.
The new Readiness Center will be able to train 250 soldiers. The goal is to open next year.
On Thursday, in part two of this series, NTV will go inside the facility and talk to the soldiers who have made this their mission.