by Cara Gardner

Despite opposition from both Democrat and Republican lawmakers, the Bush Administration is adamant about the need to close up to 25 percent of the nation's military bases -- and right now, there's no indication which of the country's 425 major installations will get the axe.

Politicians and economic leaders from regions that are dependent on military bases are becoming increasingly concerned about the administration's push for base closures; the termination of a large base can cost a region an economic lifeline. If Fairchild Air Force Base were to close, the Inland Northwest could potentially lose billions, local leaders fear.

"Fairchild didn't become what it is now overnight," says Rich Hadley, president of the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce. "If it wasn't there, then that's $2 billion of input we wouldn't have and we don't know what would replace it. We're never gonna let that happen."

March 2005 marks the fifth round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), part of an effort by the Department of Defense to reduce excess spending and concentrate resources. The bases that were closed during the four previous rounds of BRAC save the military an estimated $6.6 billion a year. That's good for the military, but some opponents say the DOD shouldn't be closing any bases right now, no matter how much it could save.

"With the U.S. fighting a war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Congressman Nethercutt really feels that it's unrealistic to make decisions about realigning or closing bases," says April Eisenhower, spokesperson for Nethercutt, who voted against an amendment in the $422 billion Defense Authorization Bill because it would have deleted language protecting military bases from closures for another two years. Washington state Senator Patty Murray also voted against the BRAC amendment.

"The Bush Administration has begun discussions with South Korea about moving over 12,000 troops out of there; they would be based back in the U.S.," Eisenhower says, also noting that the Defense Authorization Bill -- the very same one that would begin cutting bases by next March -- also calls for an increase in troop strength by about 35,000. "We need to make sure we have a place for our troops to be," Eisenhower says. "The situation is too cloudy to make policy decisions [about BRAC] at this time."

Although there's no official list of military bases on the chopping block, the consensus is that the smallest bases would be considered first up for cuts, particularly in the Army, which only closed one megabase during the last round of BRAC. Small bases are inefficient for operation because they usually have everything larger bases have, from dental clinics, recreation centers, libraries and chapels. Closing small bases, or combining them with others, makes sense to the military. In that sense, the Inland Northwest can breathe a little easier; Fairchild remains snuggly middle-sized. Sitting on 4,600 acres of land, the base employs about 5,000 people -- the largest employer in Spokane County. And, as Hadley points out, the base has five missions, which ensure its usefulness to the military: the refueling wing, the survival school, the international guard, weapons storage and the joint personal recovery center.

"We went to D.C. and met with our delegation, the Air Force and everyone in Washington who serves on the Armed Services Committee, in addition to the Idaho delegation," Hadley says. "Generally speaking, those people feel that Fairchild is such a strategic base and is so well positioned for the reach to Korea, which is the spot in the Far East that's most questionable. It's a global air bridge, a very important base, one of the largest in the country and the only one in the West. The feedback we got on how Fairchild measured up looked very good."

It's a reassurance, but not a guarantee. So the Chamber is not resting; it's forming three task forces, each designed to keep the base as one of the largest economic players in the region. The Chamber has also published a white paper and will soon complete an economic impact statement on the relationship between the base and the region. In short, the Spokane Chamber of Commerce is doing "everything," as Hadley says, to keep Fairchild around.

If, despite such efforts, Fairchild were to close, would that spell doom for the region? Some say yes, but others, especially proponents of BRAC, say regions that have seen bases close take an economic hit at first, but in the long run they tend to do even better without the military installment. Carlton Meyer, editor of G2Mil magazine, a Web site devoted to military issues but not affiliated with the Pentagon, claims military base closures resulting from BRAC can actually do some regions a service.

"Megabases present nice nuclear targets and tend to dominate local economies," Meyer writes in a recent editorial regarding BRAC. "The federal government pays no local property taxes, exempts servicemen, their family members and retirees from paying on-base sales tax, and usually expects local schools to pay for the education of military children... This is why many communities have prospered after their bases shut down."

Meyer notes that after a base is closed, the land can be used for private industry, which does pay taxes. But the land Fairchild sits on might not be the best spot for industry. There's a lot of land in the West Plains, and besides, Fairchild is on the National Priority List: It's so polluted that the Department of Ecology has stepped in as a regulatory agency overseeing the cleanup.

"It's a Superfund site," says Lt. Matt Hasson, base spokesman for Fairchild.

"Yes, that's true," says Craig Thompson, former Fairchild site manager from Ecology. "At one time there were 43 different sites we were investigating. To give my personal opinion [on how long Fairchild will remain on the NPL], it'll be decades." Thompson says that the DOD is paying for the cleanup, and Fairchild is ahead of schedule on environmental investigations.

The Chamber hopes that Fairchild could thrive underthe next round of BRAC. One of the Chamber's task forces for Fairchild is called Grow the Base; Hadley says it's seeking to capitalize on BRAC.

"[The task force] looks into how much land and capacity we have and what missions are compatible with what we have," Hadley explains. "If Fairchild grew by even 1,000 [employees] coming in, it would be a huge positive impact on our region, on our school district, on home construction -- it would be substantial."

Publication date: 06/10/04

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