US towns brace for base-closing wave
The Pentagon is expected to announce a large number of closings among its 425 domestic bases.
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The Defense Department has tried to be clear about the purpose behind this year's closures: The national economy and even cost savings are secondary. This is about crafting the best possible network of bases to support the military as it changes from a cumbersome cold war behemoth to a more flexible strike force.Skip to next paragraph
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"How can we improve the utilization of these assets to support the joint warfighter?" asks Philip Grone, the Pentagon undersecretary who oversees installations.
This focus appears to be helping US bases in some respects. The Pentagon is expected to comprehensively restructure its bases overseas, which could bring thousands of troops home and ease domestic base cuts to less than half the 24 percent of surplus capacity long projected.
But that is little consolation to the people of Kittery. According to the Seacoast Shipyard Association, the civilian payroll exceeds $318 million, and purchases throughout New England account for more than $30 million a year.
Gil Caouette, a quality assurance inspector at the Navy Yard for more than 30 years, says he is expecting to be unemployed when he returns from a fly fishing trip next week. But, with his handy-man skills and being close to retirement, he has options. "It is the young kids," he says, who he most empathizes with.
Closure will surely impact local businesses like the Navy Yard Bar & Billiards that rely on the bulk of out-of-towners who pass through the shipyard year-round.
Kittery is not the only place on edge in the face of the BRAC process. Texas and South Carolina, for example, have bought open space around military bases to keep away urban sprawl. Alabama spent $100 million of its own money to refurbish aging military facilities. And last year, Florida increased benefits for members of the armed forces.
But it's too late to plan such perks now. The Pentagon has said that any proposed changes will not be considered. Besides, to some observers, that's the wrong way to go about the next few months. "A lot of communities are calling us and asking how to fight it," says Hilarie Portell, spokeswoman for the Lowry Development Authority in Colorado. "We say you need to plan for the future."
When the Pentagon shut down Lowry Air Force Base a decade ago, the move had all the earmarks of a local disaster. The installation employed some 7,500 civilians and contributed $300 million to the economy annually. But a redevelopment plan was in place before the base closed, and Thursday, the former airfield is home to 3,000 homes, 100 businesses, and 10 schools. One estimate suggests the site now generates $4 billion a year.
By contrast, at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in California, local leaders were insistent on building a new international airport, even though the community was not behind it. The dispute lasted more than 10 years and cost more than $100 million.
To be sure, base closings can be traumatic for communities, particularly small ones. But statistics show that 85 percent of the jobs lost in the previous four rounds have been recovered, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Says Mr. Grone: "Communities that have responded with foresight by coming together and by cooperative planning in most cases have done very well over the long term in trying the get the community back on its feet."
Estes says he worries that Kittery has not done enough Plan B thinking, but he says he also understands how hard it is to imagine life without the shipyard - the one thing that has bound the community together over two centuries.
Still he says: "As much as you have to fight, you also have to plan ahead."