Offutt Air Force Base’s “Island” is about to get a makeover.
The Island is what insiders call the hilltop headquarters building planned by (and until last year, named for) Gen. Curtis LeMay, who led and shaped the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command from Offutt in its early years.
Late last year the U.S. Strategic Command, SAC’s post-Cold War successor as the holder of the keys to the nuclear arsenal, decamped with its 3,300 employees down the hill to a new $1.3 billion command-and-control building.
StratCom took the LeMay name for the new facility, leaving the 1957 fortress with its more pedestrian name, Building 500.
The Navy Trident II and Air Force Minuteman I missiles on display still stand guard out front, but the turnstiles at the entryway are gone. No longer do blue-bereted StratCom Elite Guards stand sentinel behind bulletproof glass, checking badges and reminding all to store cellphones in small lockers near the entrance. Pictures and portraits from SAC and StratCom’s storied, shared history are gone from the walls of the long hallways.
Now Building 500 is the domain and future headquarters of the 55th Wing.
The wing commander, Col. Gavin Marks, has moved his senior staff into the facility’s spacious command suite, fit for a 4-star like the string of generals and admirals who preceded him there.
But currently, only about 60 people are occupying the building’s 570,000 square feet of office space. And it will be four years before most of the 55th Wing’s military and civilian staff — displaced when their own headquarters building was inundated in the Great Flood of 2019 — will move in.
“We are slowly, slowly taking over the building,” said Nikki Nader, a senior member of the 55th Wing plans staff.
Nader is in charge of what is expected to be a major renovation of Building 500 over the next several years. What is happening now, she said, is “ownership, not occupancy.”
She said “the Island” is actually a mini-campus of four attached buildings. After more than 50 years of SAC and StratCom occupancy, they need a lot of work. The SAC/StratCom mission of round-the-clock vigilance made it difficult to give Building 500 the makeover it needed.
In the early 2000s, the building complex suffered frequent small fires because StratCom’s huge electronics footprint overtaxed the electrical system. And in December 2010, an underground water main next to the StratCom complex burst and flooded important rooms containing computer servers, knocking out power to the whole building, according to a 2018 Defense Department inspector general report.
Nader said it’s not yet known how extensive — or expensive — the renovation project will be. She said the Air Force Civil Engineering Squadron in San Antonio is on the verge of awarding a contract for the preliminary design of the renovated building. That should take about six months. The Air Force has budgeted $985,000 for the study.
It is certain that the renovation will encompass a lot of work on the building’s interior infrastructure. Building 500’s electrical wiring, plumbing, heating/air conditioning, and communications systems all need major work.
The designer will study how much the interior walls and floors will need to change to accommodate the 55th Wing and other tenant organizations that are expected to use the building as well. Much of the office space is below ground level, but it is also in an advantageous location at one of the highest points on the base.
“They’re looking for, how do we get this building so it’s effective for the next 40 or 50 years?” Nader said. “There’s lots of things to consider. What’s the best way to tackle this monster?”
StratCom’s leadership years ago looked at the building and decided it was cheaper to build a new one, even with a price tag that eventually reached $1.3 billion. The 55th Wing has looked at the same space and decided refurbishing Building 500 is a better buy.
“The taxpayer has made a very large investment. It’s much cheaper to renovate than rebuild,” Nader said. “Even if it were to come back in the hundreds of millions, that’s a much cheaper price tag.”
It’s a coincidence StratCom’s new headquarters opened up so soon after the massive flooding of 2019, which wiped out 137 structures and 1.2 million square feet of office space on the lower south end of the base — including the 55th Wing’s headquarters building.
The damage so far adds up to $868 million, said Lt. Col. Chris Conover, the wing’s director of program management for flood rebuilding. That doesn’t include the cost of furnishing the new buildings, which is likely to drive the cost above $1 billion.
Civil engineers with the 55th Wing have drafted plans to rebuild and reorganize the displaced commands into eight new campuses, which will be built over the next five years at a projected cost of $359 million.
The StratCom move and the post-flood reconstruction, combined with the $176 million reconstruction of Offutt’s runway scheduled to begin this fall, all add up to the biggest face-lift in decades for Nebraska’s largest military base (and its largest single-site employer).
The only comparable period in the base’s 130-year history is in 1941 and 1942. That’s when the Glenn L. Martin Bomber Plant was built between the Fort Crook Army post and the village of Bellevue, home at that time to fewer than 2,000 people. (More than 50,000 live there now.)
The Martin plant is associated with Building D, the large building at the north end of the runway made famous because the B-29s Enola Gay and Bockscar, which were used to drop the atomic bombs on Japan near the end of World War II, were built there.
“Nine buildings very quickly went up. They were constructed in about 15 months,” said John McQueney, historian for Offutt and the 55th Wing. Many of them are still in use.
LeMay moved SAC to Offutt soon after the war, and that, too, sparked a building boom, McQueney said. But that was spread over several decades.
Offutt has received nearly all of the post-flood reconstruction money it needs, Conover said. Until fall, there will be few visible changes to the flood-ravaged southern portion because of mandatory environmental reviews.
The groups and commands involved in the reconstruction are holding several group meetings called “charettes” to determine exactly what is needed.
“We are not done with the refinement of the campuses,” Conover said.
Seven of the eight campuses will be built in the flood plain, but several feet higher in the hope of keeping them above future floods, he said.
Two dikes that protect the base from the nearby Missouri River also are being elevated to give Offutt extra protection. And many of the new buildings will be multistory, replacing ones that were mostly one story.
Demolition of the wrecked buildings probably won’t begin until 2021, Conover said. Some construction will also get underway next year.
“I’d love to start this year, but I don’t think it will be possible,” he said.
The 3,200 Offutt workers displaced by the flood are now in temporary quarters. Some are in dormitories converted for office use or in renovated space from the Martin era. A reconnaissance squadron has moved in with one of its neighbors in a building on the Offutt parade grounds that dates to 1895.
McQueney, the historian, said the change will be transformative.
“The whole southern end of the base is going to look very different,” he said. “It’s a living, breathing base. And we’re still using it.”