HILL AIR FORCE BASE — With the ceremonial first shovelfuls of dirt turned over, Hill Air Force Base has begun a 20-year process to turn an unsightly west side of the base into a vibrant research park.

Over the next three to five years, the base, which employs 23,500 people from around northern Utah, will undergo various changes.

The north and west gates will be moved to better accommodate traffic and a new fence line, which will be pushed back toward the east.

More than 130 buildings, many of which were built in the 1940s as warehouses and later converted, will be demolished and replaced with modern buildings.

At least one hotel will be built, and retail and commercial entities will set up shop on the east side of I-15.

Base commander Maj. Gen. Kathleen Close told a group of dignitaries, including Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, legislators and contractors Friday that they can expect to see work begin shortly on new roads, new parking lots and utilities.

The research park will be known as Falcon Hill National Aerospace Research Park and makes use of a military program called enhanced-use lease.

The lease program, in Falcon Hill's case, allows the U.S. Air Force to lease 550 acres to Sunset Ridge Development Partners, which will build office and mixed-use buildings on the base and share rent revenue with the Air Force.

It's the largest enhanced-use lease in the U.S. Department of Defense so far, and the first large-scale true EUL in the Air Force, said Bruce Evans, Hill's program manager for enhanced-use lease.

"There have been other small EULs signed without the more complex components," Evans said.

Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who attended Friday's groundbreaking, said the developer will spend more than $500 million developing Falcon Hill.

Some of the development will be left up to market conditions, which is why the development is expected to take at least 20 years. The first buildings should be completed in three to five years.

Huntsman compared Falcon Hill, which will focus on the aerospace industry, composites and plastics, to the research park at the University of Utah, which then-Gov. Cal Rampton helped launch 40 years ago.

That research park is home to innovative biotechnology and health sciences companies seeking to find cures for disease.

"Forty years ago, it was just an announcement," Huntsman said. "Just like 40 years ago, what we are launching here today is all about opportunity for the next generation."

Friday's festivities didn't go exactly as planned, however. After speeches by the dignitaries, most in attendance boarded five buses to take a tour of the Falcon Hill site.

The groundbreaking was to follow the tour, but it began and ended before two of the buses returned from the tour.

Sunset City Councilman Ryan Furniss was on one of those buses. He and two other members of the Sunset council had taken time off of work to attend the groundbreaking and were frustrated to have missed it.

"That ceremony means a lot," Furniss said. "I have been fighting tooth and nail to make Sunset a part of this."

What stings, Furniss said, is that the 100 people on those buses were invited to come to an event they worked at creating, and then were left in the dust.

"It was unfortunate not all of the attendees were able to see the groundbreaking," said George Jozens, Hill's public affairs director. "The indoor ceremony and the tours lasted longer than expected, so when the dignitaries returned to the groundbreaking site, they were beyond their schedules."

That's when the decision was made to complete the ceremony, Jozens said.

"We did not intentionally leave anyone out of the ceremony, we were simply accommodating our prominent dignitaries."

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