No Community Wants This Extreme Makeover

To some cities and regions it will be an extreme makeover they could do without, thank you. They are the myriad communities across America now sweating out the prospect of losing a key military installation.

There are 425 military bases across the United States – but not for long. The upcoming round of military base closings will reduce that total. Also reduced: the hefty economic impact on a number of local economies.

Florida currently has 21 military installations – from the Panhandle to Miami. They account for more than 700,000 employees and an estimated $44 billion in economic impact – behind only tourism and agriculture.

Locally, we’re talking MacDill Air Force Base, home to U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command as well as the 6th Air Mobility Wing, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s aircraft operations center, the Joint Communications Support Element (JCSE) and more. It employs about 7,000 civilian and military personnel and is worth some $6.5 billion annually to the local economy, according to the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

On May 16, when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld submits his recommendations to the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission, one or more of those Florida bases could very well be targeted. In fact, given the Pentagon’s charge to cut 25 per cent of infrastructure — most of it integral to a Cold War network – it’s not likely Florida will dodge all the closure bullets.

These are anxious times as the Pentagon looks to expedite a leaner and more agile military largely through scenarios of consolidation.

Gov. Jeb Bush has had a pricey, high-powered consultant team, which includes former Defense Secretary William Cohen and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, on the case. He also has a base closure advisory council of influential Floridians. It’s co-chaired by retired Air Force General J.B. Davis of Palm Harbor and includes USF President Judy Genshaft and Tampa businessman and Republican Party icon Al Austin.

The strategy, says Austin, is different than it was for previous rounds (1988, ’91, ’93 and ’95) of closures.

“In past years, each community was pretty much on its own and competing against each other,” says Austin. “Now we look at all 21 bases without a favorite. We will defend whichever one gets on it. We hope only one. It could be more. We will all fight whatever bases may be on that list. The fact of the matter is all 67 counties derive some benefit from the military.”

Austin says that the findings resulting from two years of exhaustive scrutiny by Pentagon analysts have been notably absent of leaks. “They’re really playing it close to the vest,” he notes. “They keep saying that this one will have little input from politicians. And remember the president (by Nov. 7) has to accept or reject the whole thing. I think Rumsfeld will lean on his experts rather than outside influences.”

However it shakes out, says Austin, the die is largely cast. It’s now a matter of watchful waiting – and probably hoping that U.S. Rep. Bill Young can still make enough of a difference one more time.

“We’re in this time frame where we have to wait for the shoe to drop,” he explains. “You can’t lobby them. We think we’re as well prepared as we can be. We’ve laid the groundwork with 100 per cent support from the Congressional delegation and our two senators, and the governor is really tuned in. Our hope is that only one base is on it, and then it’s up to us to prove they made a mistake.”

For the record, previous BRAC commissions have endorsed 85 per cent of the Pentagon’s recommendations.

It’s also a matter of “trying to keep a positive spin going,” adds Austin, who makes no secret of his disappointment with the recent comments of former Congressman Sam Gibbons that Tampa needs to get real and prepare for life after MacDill.

“Gibbons still has stature,” points out Austin. “Saying something like that can make them wonder if they missed something. It can raise red flags. The point is the timing was bad. We need to stay extremely cautious – and not do anything to rock the boat.

“You have to assume that MacDill is in good shape,” stresses Austin, who cites the nearly half billion dollars in infrastructure improvements – including an intelligence center for CentCom — currently under way at MacDill. Its more recent amenities include a new control tower and a 12,000-foot runway.

“Sure, they look at that,” he underscores. “And they look at what it would cost to close it.

“In the past, politics played too strong a role,” acknowledges Austin. “Today it’s all about duplication of services all over the system. Our hope is they can see MacDill as a perfect place to add components. Realignment for more planes is certainly a hope.”

The bottom line is that everybody is vulnerable, and there are no guarantees. MacDill, for example, could be considered squeezed by some residential development. But MacDill, with its infrastructure investments and two unified commands, is – as a key national security component — in better shape than most.

And that, hopefully, is more than positive spin.

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