The Army’s elimination of the 3rd Armored Brigade as a full combat team — which will cut 3,400 soldier positions at Fort Benning — will have a far-reaching impact on the surrounding communities, figures released Thursday show.
The post’s Maneuver Center of Excellence said the troop cuts alone will leave a $229 million gash in the local economy from the loss of sales and other spending, with lost annual income amounting to $198 million.
Those figures don’t include any impact from the loss of civilians working on the installation to support its various missions and operations. The military said about 17,000 such civilian jobs will be eliminated across the Army. Gary Jones, Fort Benning’s director of public affairs, said it could be sometime this fall before local civilian employee numbers are made public.
The impact figures also don’t include the resulting loss of non-federal jobs in the Columbus and Phenix City area from the Army’s cuts, often referred to as a ripple effect. Fort Benning’s projections indicate as many as 974 jobs throughout area communities will disappear as the cuts materialize by Sept. 30, 2017, the mandated date for the Army’s reduction to occur. Those jobs would be lost due to decreased demand for goods and services, and less military contract spending in the local area.
“I think, clearly, we’re disappointed. We had hoped that we would lose none,” Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said Thursday after digesting the news of the 3rd Armored Brigade’s demise amid the Army’s intentions to downsize from 570,000 soldiers to 450,000 — 40,000 job cuts in this round alone — as part of becoming a smaller force following wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The number of brigade combat teams is falling from 45 to 30.
“It’s the same as losing a large corporation,” she said of the Fort Benning reduction. “If I was having the joy of announcing a corporation coming to town with 3,400 jobs, we would be very gleeful. So now this is the opposite. This is something that ebbs and flows, and we understand that by its nature.”
The local military downsizing and resulting job losses are expected to eventually impact most, if not all, sectors of the Columbus-area economy — housing, retail, food establishments and service businesses.
“When you talk about 3,400 troops and then the civilians that will go with that, probably around 2,000, it’s pretty devastating to the apartment investment community,” said Will White, a partner in the Columbus-based apartment development and management company Greystone Properties, which has about 2,500 units in the local market.
White said 28 percent of Greystone’s residents are in the military, with the firm's occupancy rate now at about 93 percent. He termed that a “little soft” and slightly below what he considers a balanced level. But he fears what might happen as the Fort Benning cuts begin to kick in.
“It could easily dip below 90 percent, which is an unhealthy occupancy level,” he said. “Historically, across the country, apartments are in balance around 94 percent occupancy. That’s considered a normal market when demand and supply are balanced. I don’t know if Columbus has seen 88 or 89 percent occupancy. I haven’t seen it that low.”
David Johnson, a broker with KW Commercial in Columbus, believes housing overall will be impacted by the soldier cuts, as well as retail stores and places where people dine. He sees developers, before deciding to launch a project here, perhaps eyeballing the city’s demographics more closely as the troops, with their steady paychecks, exit the market.
“The thing that would concern me most is that south Columbus has begun to pick up momentum with redevelopment, with the Walmart project, with new schools, with housing,” Johnson said of progress in the area nearest Fort Benning that could be hampered by less spending by soldiers. “Victory Drive looks better than I can ever remember, and there is a very nice upsurge of development in south Columbus.”
The new Army cuts take bites of various sizes out of installations across the U.S., although the largest number is coming from Fort Benning at 3,450 soldiers. Fort Hood in Texas is losing 3,350 troops, while Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska will shed 2,631, and three posts — Fort Bliss in Texas, Schofield Barracks in Hawaii and Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state — each will give up just over 1,200 soldiers.
An Army impact chart shows Fort Benning being authorized 10,607 military personnel in fiscal year 2001 (for historical perspective). That authorized number in fiscal year 2012 was 13,029, but slipped to 12,655 troops by this fiscal year 2015. By the time the current drawdown is completed in fiscal year 2017, the installation will have 9,040 authorized military personnel, 15 percent lower than in 2001.
It’s that tumbling trend that city and community leaders will be scrambling to halt as the U.S. Department of Defense faces yet another mandated budget cut this fall stemming from the Budget Control Act of 2011. Called sequestration, the expense reductions in the federal budget would be triggered Oct. 1 if congressional leaders can’t come up with a compromise. That would force Army troop levels lower to 420,000 by fiscal year 2019.
“Our plan is a full-court press, to be proactive,” said Brian Anderson, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce. “It’s basically to stop sequestration, to indicate to everybody what the ramifications are. That’s through petitions and press conferences and all the pressure we can apply to get Congress to do what it should do, and that’s to have a budget that is responsible and doesn’t allow really far-reaching and exaggerated cuts that sequestration requires when certain parts of the budget (such as entitlement programs) are protected.”
Tomlinson believes there is hope for the future in that the cuts to the 3rd Armored Brigade — a move that had been publicly viewed as likely for years — sets Fort Benning up to gain more soldiers and missions in the Base Realignment and Closure process that is certain to come.
She also understands that the “huge economic engine” that Fort Benning has been for the surrounding region for nearly 100 years will have its highs and lows as wars and conflicts ramp up — creating a local boom — then come to a conclusion, prompting a troop and force structure reduction.
The mayor said she already knows the tact community leaders will take when federal lawmakers start thinking about which military bases to close and leave open as the coming budget processes unfold.
“The pitch they’re going to get from me is let me show you where you can put all your new resources,” she said. “Bring us your troops. We’ve got a place for them. It’s state of the art and you won’t have to spend to update anything. We’ve got what you need right here.”
Numbers released Thursday by Fort Benning show 221,500 soldiers, retirees, family members, students and military civilian workers and contractors working, using or living on the post each day. The stats include the installation supporting 30,000 active-duy soldiers, 7,700 Department of the Army civilian and contract workers, and 83,000 family members and military retirees. It also has an average daily (soldier) student training load of 12,500.
MILITARY: TASK FORCE EXPANDABLE; LESS COMPETITION FOR TRAINING AREAS
The Department of Army has announced that it is cutting 3,400 troops connected to the 3rd Armored Brigade combat team at Fort Benning, while maintaining a “battalion task force” of 1,050 soldiers.
The post’s Maneuver Center of Excellence explained what that means in a release Thursday. The infantry battalion task force is designed to be expanded to a full brigade combat team if needed by the military. The task force will have one infantry battalion of about 1,050 soldiers to include engineer, field artillery and support units.
“These elements allow us to preserve some measure of combat power and reversibility within a 450,000-person (overall Army) force,” Fort Benning said.
But there is a side note for doing away with the full 3rd Brigade combat team other than the military simply reducing from 45 to 30 brigades. It also will minimize competition for ranges and training areas now essentially shared by Fort Benning’s Infantry and Armor schools. It also “mitigates the requirement to expand Fort Benning’s training area,” the post said, something the military has explored in recent years, with discussions of adding training land in nearby Stewart County, Ga.