Regions Fight Losing Battles To Keep Their Military Bases

Many areas could lose billions in benefits when cuts come

THE next round of United States military base closures is looming.

Across the country, governors, mayors, and business leaders are raising money, hiring lobbyists, doing all they can to prevent their military installations from becoming casualties in next year's decisions.

The threat of base closure has pitted city against city and service against service. San Antonio has four Air Force bases and one Army base in the region, for example. The Air Logistics Center at San Antonio's Kelly Air Force Base is competing against similar facilities in Utah, Oklahoma, Georgia, and California. Two of the five logistics centers are likely to be closed. With 70,000 jobs and almost $4 billion in direct economic impact on the city annually, the military is one of San Antonio's biggest employers.

But no matter how much money or effort they invest, many cities will be disappointed. More than half of the 470 military installations now operating in the US could be closed during this fourth and final round of base closures. In the three previous rounds, 250 other bases were recommended for closure. That many more could go next year alone, up to 70 of them major bases.

Tom Houston, the staff director of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission (DBCRC), says he has had more than 100 visits from regional delegations this year. ``Communities today are just so much further along in planning for this process than they were in 1991,'' Mr. Houston says.

``We have been in close touch with local commanders to ensure the bases are as productive and cost effective as possible,'' says Paul Roberson, a retired Air Force brigadier general who now works for the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. ``We are trying to identify issues that would affect the Department of Defense's view of our facilities.''

San Antonio's low labor costs could help it retain its bases, but the city's ongoing water problems could hurt it. The largest city in the world completely dependent on groundwater, San Antonio may not have enough water to assure the Pentagon that all its bases can continue operating.

In Utah, the governor and local governments have raised $700,000 in their effort to keep Hill Air Force Base operating. Scott Parkinson of the Ogden Chamber of Commerce calls Hill the ``800 pound gorilla'' of the local economy. ``We are talking about 29,000 jobs, with contractors and direct jobs on the base,'' he says. And Mr. Parkinson even argues that Hill should remain open because it's too polluted to close. ``We have a study that estimates it would cost $23 to $25 billion to clean up the site.''

Keith Cunningham, a policy analyst with Business Executives for National Security, a Washington D.C.-based group, questions the value of the lobbying efforts. ``It's unfortunate, but if one community spends the money, the other communities have to. It's like an election campaign. I think it will all be a wash in the end,'' he says.

Mr. Houston agrees that lobbying may not help: ``Communities are worried and understandably so. The easy decisions have all been made. So even big-time bases with deep histories are likely to be closed.''

CALIFORNIA could be the hardest hit by the next round of closures. Some 18 major bases there have already been listed for closure. Sacramento's McClellan Air Force Base and the Long Beach Naval Shipyard have both been listed as closure targets in the past. Ben Williams of the governor's office in Sacramento estimates the two facilities have an annual economic impact of $1.5 billion.

``We are just now seeing our state economy turn around. If we took another major round of hits, it would certainly slow that recovery down,'' he says.

To help save the bases, California Gov. Pete Wilson recently hired Judy Ann Miller, a former Pentagon staffer, to coordinate the efforts in Sacramento, Long Beach, Monterey, and other cities with large installations.

The lobbying will end March 1, when Secretary of Defense William Perry presents his closure list to the DBCRC. After it receives Mr. Perry's list, the commissioners will begin visiting bases and adding or subtracting closure candidates. On July 1, they will present their list to President Clinton, who can approve the list or ask the committee to have another go at the proposal.

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