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Massive military museum under construction near Dubois

in News/Community/Bill Sniffin
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Dan Starks, National Museum of Military Vehicles founder, explains how the oil and gas industry helped the American military build a better tank.

By Bill Sniffin, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s next great museum is under construction and will open next May.

The National Museum of Military Vehicles is a massive facility located just south of Dubois in Fremont County.

The $100 million self-funded museum has been a dream of Dan Starks, who bought his first Wyoming property in 2011. Construction on the new museum started in May of 2017. It is a 140,000 square-foot facility designed to hold 150 military vehicles.

But it is much more than a display of vehicles.

Starks, 65, is not a veteran but has such a high degree of respect for those who served that he sees this project as his life’s work. And what a life it has been.

He worked 32 years at a medical equipment company in Minneapolis, serving as CEO before retiring in 2017. The company made $6 billion per year and had 28,000 employees working on life-saving devices, specializing on heart catheters and other devices. 

“At one time, we figured our devices were saving a life every three seconds around the world,” he says.

His company was acquired by Abbott Laboratories in 2017. Their web site shows Starks owns over $600 million in stock in the big international company and serves on its board.

Dan and his wife Cynthia’s life’s dream was to settle in Dubois and launch some project to recognize the service of America’s veterans. And boy, is this ever some project.

Despite the gigantic size of the facility, (you can almost put three football fields inside its walls), Starks now worries that it might be too small.  The couple owns more than 400 of pristine historic vehicles from World War II and other conflicts, presumed to be the largest and best private collection in the world.Starks thinks he might only get 150 of them inside the walls.

The Starks’ daughter Alynne is the executive director of the facility.Their plan for the museum has gone far beyond just a place to display vehicles. “We want to create displays that show the landing at Normandy, the surrenders in Germany and Japan, the Battle of the Bulge, and other great moments in our country’s military history,” Starks says.

Starks sees the facility having three components:

  • First, to honor the service and sacrifice of millions of Americans;
  • Second, preserve the history of what happened during these wars, and
  • Third, provide an educational experience.

The vast array of vehicles goes beyond the killing machines of tanks, artillery, and flamethrowers. It also includes dozens of the machines that made the wars winnable.

Starks likes to discuss how the “Red Ball Express” helped secure the victories. This was the truck-based supply chain that seemed to provide endless amounts of food, ammo, and war machines as Allied troops marched toward victory.

He wants to show how America was able to convert its massive manufacturing expertise to enable the Allies to fight two different wars in different parts of the world and win both in just three and one-half years. The new museum will show how the American ability to mass-produce cars and trucks was converted to produce tanks, jeeps, airplanes, and other war machines in record amounts that just wore down the enemy. 

“Germany built beautiful machines, but they did not understand mass production like Americans did,” Starks said. “It was impossible for them to keep up when it came to replacing and resupplying their troops at key moments in World War II. We want to honor everyone who participated in this great victory. This museum will showcase that effort but showing the machines that were built and how they were utilized.”

Dan and Alynne Starks led a handful of people on a tour of the facility Aug. 1, including Lander radio station owner Joe Kenney, Fremont County Commissioner Mike Jones and retired Lander business leader Tony McRae.

Kenney said he was impressed that Starks wants no grants or government money to help with the project.  

“He knows what he wants and he is going to get it,” he said. “Amazing.”

Jones said he was overwhelmed by Starks’ passion. 

“His enthusiasm is contagious,” he said. “This is going to be game-changer for tourism in Fremont County and Wyoming.”

McRae said he did not know what to expect. 

“I was just blown away by the scale of this project,” he said. “I can’t wait to see it after it opens.”

Alynne, as executive director, said the project will probably employ about 15 people.  They have not decided on what admission will cost but one thing is sure: “Veterans will get in free!  My dad insists on that,” she said.

Near the middle of the building’s interior is an amazing vault that will hold Starks’ $10 million collection of historic weapons, including a rifle fired at Custer’s Last Stand and a pistol used by General Pershing in World War I. The collection also includes 270 Winchester rifles.  The facility will have meeting rooms and members of the Wyoming Legislature are convening there in October.It also has the Chance Phelps Theatre, named for the brave Dubois Marine who died April 9, 2004, in Iraq.  The movie “Taking Chance”was about that soldier.

There will also be a large library with one of the world’s largest collections of manuals and other information about military vehicles.

There are over 100 tanks and other impressive war machines parked in row after row in a big field next to the new building. There is even a Russian-built MiG 21 parked in the field that was used in the Viet Nam War against American soldiers. It is flyable. Starks’ other machines are in downtown Dubois, on his ranches and stored in Salt Lake City. Besides the main museum facility, the Starks built a large building just off Main Street in Dubois to hold many of their vehicles and a shop to keep them running.

Eight years ago, their first home in Dubois was an old homestead. Then, they purchased a 250-head cattle ranch and recently they bought a third ranch, which now has 36 bison grazing on it.

“We love Dubois and we love Wyoming. This is our great adventure,” Starks said.

Wyoming’s jets cost state $1 million in 2018

in Government spending/News/Transportation
Wyoming’s jets cost state $1 million in 2018
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

With 99 municipalities spread far and wide across Wyoming’s approximately 98,000 square miles, transportation can be time consuming for state employees and elected officials.

However, some disagree on whether the best way to meet those travel needs is to keep the two state jets sometimes jokingly referred to as the “Wyoming Air Force.”

In 2002, the state purchased two Cessna Citation Encores, twin-engine transport jets, to reduce the time its employees and officials spent on the road, said Brian Olsen, administrator of the Wyoming Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division.

Not everyone, however, agrees the jets are the most efficient form of transportation.

Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, said he has added an amendment to the state’s budget bill to sell one of the jets every year since he was elected in 2017. But, so far, the amendment has failed.

“I think they’re an example of government extravagance,” Gray said. “There’s no reason we should have this many jets.”

Olsen disagreed. By owning two jets, he said the state could ensure one plane is available whenever needed.

“When it comes to maintenance, one plane is no plane,” Olsen explained.

According to Wyoming’s checkbook, WYDOT spent about $494,700 on aircraft maintenance with Cessna Aircraft Company in 2018. Olsen said $464,000 of that total was spent on maintaining the jets. The state also owns a Cessna 208, a single-engine turbo prop used to photographically survey road conditions, he said.

WYDOT Director and retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. K. Luke Reiner said two jets is optimal.

“We have one jet going into maintenance in June,” Reiner said. “Having two planes does provide a certain sense of redundancy. Also, there’s use for two aircraft … in terms of the ability for elected leaders and agencies to fulfill their responsibilities to the state and the residents.”

Regardless of whether flying is more efficient, government air service stymies private enterprise, said Kevin Lewis, a researcher for Equality State Taxpayers Association.

“People who fly in Wyoming make up a market for air travel,” Lewis said. “Right now, the government sector is removed from that market. We’re talking about a business that lives and dies on slim margins.”

By selling the jets, he suggested the state could create an environment for private intra-state air travel to expand.

“Wyoming is never going to grow itself if your main competitor is the government,” Lewis added.

Cost efficiency

Olsen said WYDOT researched the possibility of booking flights with private charters, but determined owning and maintaining its own fleet was about 44 percent more cost effective.

WYDOT also looked into fractional aircraft, the practice of sharing aircraft ownership, maintenance and operation costs with multiple owners, and determined fractional ownership would be 32 percent more expensive than owning the jets solely.

In regards to employee travel, Olsen said WYDOT studies reported flying employees across the state was 14 percent more cost efficient than paying them to drive.

“We looked at a couple salary levels, but mostly around the $100,000-a-year mark,” he explained. “But those studies don’t take into consideration the cost of motels or opportunity costs.”

Employees are rendered somewhat ineffective while driving, because the time they spend on the road — even when carpooling — is not conducive to a productive work environment, he added.

As stewards of taxpayers’ dollars, Reiner said he believed the jets were the most fiscally responsible travel option for state employees and elected officials.

“I think these aircraft are a really good use of resources for our state,” he said.

Between bulk jet fuel purchases of about $185,000, $464,000 in maintenance costs and approximately $327,000 in pilot’s salaries, Wyoming spent about $1 million on traveling via the two jets in 2018.

Despite WYDOT’s efficiency report, Gray said he would still like Legislature to review the possibility of reducing the state’s air fleet by one jet.

“When I’ve done town halls, I’ve consistently heard the jets are a problem,” he said. “We’re going to continue trying the amendment.”

Reiner said he doesn’t believe the state needs more than two jets, but the state should maintain its current fleet.

“The planes are a tremendous asset for our government,” he said. “The bottom line is they help us accomplish our mission.”

Wyoming’s Air Fleet By the Numbers

  • Aircraft: 2-Cessna twin-engine passenger jets, 1-Cessna single-engine turbo prop survey plane
  • Viable landing strips across Wyoming: 34
  • Maintenance cost for 2018: About $464,000
  • Fuel cost for 2018: About $185,000
  • Annual pilot salaries combined: About $327,000
  • Transport jet flights in 2018: 663, carrying a total 2,213 passengers
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