Loss of the 3rd Brigade would be 'devastating' to Benning and region's economy

The numbers released three weeks ago in a study by the U.S. Army Environmental Command are stark. Its "Programmatic Environmental Assessment for Army 2020 Force Restructuring" indicates 7,100 soldiers and civilian workers at Fort Benning could be lost. The apparent target is the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team and its support groups on Kelley Hill.

Former Fort Benning commander and former Columbus city manager said the brigade could go away.

"I hate to say that," Cavezza said, "but it could go away."

And the soldiers and Fort Benning employees are only the start.

The assessment also estimates the group of federal employees and troops who may be affected have 3,950 spouses and 6,791 dependent children, bringing the total population impacted to just over 17,800.

On top of that, the Army projects an additional 689 military contract service workers could be lost at Fort Benning, while reduced demand for goods and services could shoot ripples through the area economy and slice 1,234 more jobs from the region.

"We know it would obviously be a huge negative impact on the whole region," said Jack Key, a partner in the city's largest real-estate firm, Coldwell Banker/Kennon, Parker, Duncan & Key, and a past chairman of the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce. "You can't take the equivalent of a small town out of the middle of our area and it not be just devastating."

If that entire scenario unfolded by 2020, the Chattahoochee Valley region in theory would see nearly 9,000 jobs vanish. The study pegged the monetary impact of such a blow to the area's economy at $342 million in yearly income and nearly $404 million in annual sales.

Time to fight

According to Cavezza, a retired three-star general, the U.S. military likely won't play favorites during its current restructuring.

"You've got a three-brigade division with a headquarters at Fort Stewart, and its other two brigades and the supporting brigades there," he said. "And then you've got this loner brigade over here. So it makes it simple to just take this one out. That doesn't necessarily have to be the way it's done. But, to me, it makes it very vulnerable."

As for the $3.5 billion in new construction at Fort Benning and the money spent in the private sector from the last round of BRAC, he said that likely won't mean much to the budget cutters.

Cavezza recalled being assigned to Fort Ord, Calif., in the early 1990s, just as the Army post had been identified for closure during a previous BRAC. The military had pumped millions of dollars into the installation's housing, training areas and other infrastructure in the years leading up to that fateful decision.

"When they announced that Fort Ord was going to close, I was shocked," said Cavezza, who doesn't believe there is any chance that Fort Benning would be shut down. "We had just put a ton of money in here, and the response I basically got is we just had to look at it as some cost, that's the decision, Fort Ord is closing. So, common sense does not necessarily apply."

The former general's best advice for dealing with the current threat of Fort Benning budget cuts is simple: Don't go down without a fight, and make lots of noise. He said a recent resolution by the city against the cuts and the Chamber of Commerce's call for deluging the Army with public feedback is the right plan of attack.

Again, he recalled Fort Ord, which finally closed in 1994. The congressional delegation and local chambers of commerce there didn't really offer any resistance to the military's plans.

"I think the people on the Hill making these decisions have got to know that the community is really unhappy about this happening," Cavezza said. "I think we need to continue to talk to our elected officials and do whatever we can to let the people in Washington know that Fort Benning is important to us and we want to keep it, and we want to maintain it as close to what it is as possible.

"If we don't take that position, we're liable to really lose our shirt."

Downsizing already coming

A reduction in training already is occurring on the installation, which is home to the Infantry and Armor schools, both of which offer basic combat training. With the U.S. military ending the war in Iraq and winding down in Afghanistan, the number of troops receiving instruction on post was slashed by 35,000 to 96,000 in the last fiscal year.

The $487 billion downsizing of the U.S. Armed Forces from the conflicts -- as well as a nation struggling to reduce its surging debt and deficits -- has led the Army to order a reduction in its ranks from 562,000 soldiers to 490,000 by 2020.

The centerpiece of that cost-cutting effort is eliminating eight combat brigades from the Army, two of which will come from Europe and the balance in the U.S.

Thus, the 3rd Brigade at Fort Benning has become a prime target. The combat unit, long dubbed the "Sledgehammer Brigade," has seen extensive action in both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and most recently returned from training in Kuwait. It is one of the most-deployed units in the Army.

"The thing that I don't understand is we have spent billions -- with a B -- building infrastructure at Fort Benning over the last several years," said Bud Allen, president of Columbus-based Allen Development Group, which owns and leases nearly 500,000 square feet of retail space locally, primarily at small neighborhood centers. He also is delving into apartments, with a Summit Pointe complex now being developed on Williams Road.

Specifically, the U.S. Department of Defense shelled out $3.5 billion to construct buildings and training facilities for the relocation of the U.S. Army Armor School from Fort Knox, Ky., to Fort Benning.

The move was part of the massive federal Base Realignment and Closure process in 2005, which mandated completion of the Armor School's arrival here at what is now called the Maneuver Center of Excellence by September 2011.

"We have 10 or 11 brigades in Europe, and they're talking about deactivating two," Allen said. "My personal opinion is that if they're going to deactivate brigades anywhere, they need to deactivate the brigades in Europe. Don't impact any of our local towns or cities here in the States."

Both Key and Will White, a Columbus developer, said the decision to take away a large number of soldiers and civilian jobs at Fort Benning should be weighed against the large investment by the military in the previous BRAC round, as well as the money spent in the surrounding communities to create new housing and other infrastructure improvements.

"We obviously know that there's no guarantee, and at the end of the day the Army needs to do what is best for them," White said. "But I do think that should be part of the equation to some extent. We were asked to build and we built. And now, potentially, a large number of our residents could leave."

Ripple effect

"We're talking every industry just about, anything to do with the consumer, anything to do with retail," Key said of the impact the cuts would have on local residents, businesses and the city. "You're just taking a big piece of the market away."

For instance, while a large number of soldiers reside on post in single-family housing or dormitory-style barracks, a considerable portion of them do live in homes or apartments off the installation.

White, a partner in Greystone Properties, a Columbus-based apartment development company, said 33 percent, or a third, of his units are inhabited by soldiers and their families. He has nearly 2,500 apartment units locally, with construction of a 224-unit complex on Riverchase Drive in Phenix City now under way. Another 42 units are also being built in the second phase of The Oaks on River Road in Columbus.

The developer lamented the economic jolt that would occur if the 3rd Brigade was deactivated or relocated to Fort Stewart, where its parent, the 3rd Infantry Division, is headquartered in southeast Georgia. Fort Benning has said the 7,100 jobs in the Army study include the local brigade's 3,900 soldiers and 3,200 civilians employees.

"It certainly would present some challenges and very difficult times for the multifamily industry, as the market is getting softer," White said. "To lose the 3rd Brigade on top of it would be very, very difficult. That creates very serious issues for everyone in the real-estate business in Columbus. I can promise you that."

Such a situation, in essence, would take away a great deal of demand. On the apartment front, the bottom would fall out of the market, White said, with occupancy levels for high-end complexes taking a plunge. They now are at 93 to 94 percent locally, although an overbuilding of apartments in recent years and already-softening demand are expected to push that down to 89 percent within a year to 18 months, he said.

Sales of new and existing homes also would be expected to feel intense pressure as declining demand pushed the inventory of homes higher, Key said. That, in turn, would cause prices to fall.

"Any impact on Fort Benning staffing will certainly be of concern to the construction community of Columbus," said Dave Erickson, president of Grayhawk Homes, a leading builder in the Columbus-Phenix City area. He also was recently elected president of the Greater Columbus Homebuilders Association.

"The hope is they would be more focused on equipment as opposed to people," Erickson said of the possible cuts. "But even training less soldiers at Fort Benning will certainly have some impact on staffing and activity levels on post."