Trying to create a sense of urgency around proposed cuts at Fort Benning, the leadership of the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce today beseeched residents in and around the city to let their voices be heard.
“Now is the time for action,” said Jacki Lowe, chamber chair and a Georgia Power executive. “It’s very, very important that your comments arrive prior to Feb. 17 to be considered in the decision-making process.”
Lowe and Mike Gaymon, president and chief executive officer of the chamber, called the press conference to plead for local feedback to the U.S. Department of the Army’s Environmental Command.
The move follows the Jan. 18 release of a study — called the “Programmatic Environmental Assessment for Army 2020 Force Restructuring.” In a nutshell, it says that Fort Benning could lose its one and only combat brigade as part of the military’s downsizing from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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Specifically, if the local cuts become reality, the infantry and armor training post would lose up to 7,100 soldiers and civilian employees. The installation has said that number includes 3,900 soldiers with the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division. Another 3,200 civilian workers would be impacted.
The study indicates those soldiers and civilians each earn an average of $41,830 in annual salary. It also estimates those workers have about 3,950 spouses and 6,791 dependent children. That’s a population total of 17,815.
“You can’t take this amount of people, consumers, out of the economy and not have an impact,” Gaymon said. “But it will be phased. So it’s not like all of a sudden a facilty shuts down and then all of those jobs are gone.”
Still, that would not be all of the damage felt if the full brunt of cuts were levied. The economic impact forecasts that 689 additional military contract service jobs would be lost at Fort Benning. A drop in demand for goods and services in the region could lead to 1,234 job losses, it said.
The grand total at that point would be 8,997 fewer jobs in the Chattahoochee Valley region. That equates to a drain of more than $342 million in yearly income and nearly $404 million in annual sales in the region. The Columbus metro area workforce in December was 119,600, according to the Georgia Department of Labor.
“If I were running any business, I would make sure my employees and everybody else were writing letters and sending emails and so forth,” Gaymon said. “Because I guarantee you there’s no business that’s exempt from being impacted by this action.”
The good news at this point is that apparently no decisions have been made. Fort Benning is among several military installations being considered for the massive cuts, which will reduce the Army’s ranks from 562,000 soldiers to 490,000 by 2020.
The Army plans to reduce the number of active combat brigades by eight. Two of those will come from Europe, with the rest from the U.S., including Fort Stewart, Ga., which is where the parent division of the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team is located.
Lowe and Gaymon have sent their own letter to the U.S. Army Environmental Command at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, laying out how “devastating” the cuts would be on the region.
It also details the $3.5 billion in federal money already spent on construction and infrastructure at Fort Benning to prepare it for receiving the U.S. Armor School from Fort Knox, Ky. That move was mandated by the last Base Realignment and Closure process, which was completed in September 2011.
The letter also touches on the fact that Columbus citizens and the state of Georgia invested heavily in the community to prepare for the influx of soldiers and civilian workers related to the 2005 BRAC mandate. It noted two special purpose local option sales tax initiatives have been passed to upgrade schools and the transportation, or road, network in the area.
“We know that every community affected by these cuts can make similar claims. So the obvious question is to ask what makes our region different,” said Lowe, making her case that no cuts should occur at Fort Benning.
“The citizens of Columbus know the importance of Fort Benning to our community and to our economy, and were willing to support it’s growth with their own money,” she said.
Lowe said the loss of tax revenue could harm both the local government and education entities, while the possibility of declining property values — with military and civilian workers exiting the area — could “exacerbate” an already difficult housing market.
The chamber has held defense impact briefings and summits in recent months to get the word out to the community and to elected officials about the possible negative impact any cuts could have on the community. Those came after the U.S. Department of Defense announced about a year ago $487 billion in budget reductions, and as the so-called “fiscal cliff” was approaching in December. The latter has yet to be resolved.
For Gaymon, getting the details of the military restructuring into the public domain is a bit of a relief.
“I’m glad now that the study is out so at least we can focus on the study and what it says instead of rumors and speculation,” he said.
Now, he said, is the time for the public itself to contribute to the defense of Fort Benning and its military and civilian workforce.
“I hope we load (the Army) up with hundreds of thousands of emails and texts and so forth, so they can say they heard from the people of this region,” he said.
TO MAKE A COMMENT
Public comments on the “Programmatic Environmental Assessment for Army 2020 Force Restructuring” can be made via mail or email. The deadline for submitting feedback is (Sunday) Feb. 17.
By mail:USAEC Attn: IMPA-AE (Army 2020 PEA)2450 Connell Road (Bldg. 2264)Fort Sam Houston, Texas 78234-7664