Warming Up to BRAC

When the Pentagon targets a base near you, it could translate into serious economic opportunities.
February 1, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
William Fulton
By William Fulton  |  Columnist
Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.

Back in the 1990s -- especially here in California where I live -- the mere mention of the acronym BRAC was enough to send chills down a local official's spine. BRAC, of course, stands for the Pentagon's Base Realignment and Closure process, and mostlocals assumed that, if their base wound up on the list, it meant the closure of the facility and the end of the good times.

As community after community learned, however, the closure or contraction of a base wasn't always the worst thing in the world. Sure, it created a short-term hit. But it also opened up unexpected opportunity. In such circumstances, communities had to identify their economic assets and figure out how to use them to recover. Often, the end result was a more vigorous and dynamic local economy, one that was much more in tune with the fast-changing economy of the world at large.

In the 2000s, BRAC doesn't always mean contraction or closure. With America refocused on national security, the BRAC process can often bring expansion plans to a military base as well as new problems and opportunities to the surrounding communities. Some 20 base communities -- ranging from Fort Drum in Upstate New York to Fort Bliss near El Paso -- are bracing themselves for major expansion.

The reason it's worth looking at base CLOSURE experiences in dealing with base EXPANSIONS is simple: These days, the Pentagon contracts out everything it can. In Iraq, this has led to the Blackwater contract and the controversy surrounding that company's mode of operation. Back at home in the base communities, however, contracting out means more money is flowing off base and into town.

Take Fort Drum, for example. Located 70 miles north of Syracuse and 30 miles from the Canadian border, Fort Drum is nobody's idea of glamorous. It's an Army training and deployment base, and it's located in an area -- near Watertown -- that's economically depressed and pretty darned wintry.

But Fort Drum is the largest employer in northern New York. It has a billion-dollar annual payroll, more than $200 million of which goes to civilian employees. It's also one of the largest contractors in Upstate New York, letting $85 million in contracts per year, including $46 million in the immediate Watertown area. Most of the contracts are for pretty basic stuff -- supplies, construction, housing management -- because Fort Drum is a pretty basic place.

The important economic development point is not that Watertown is prospering because of Fort Drum's payroll and contracts. It's that contracts create demand in the civilian economy for certain skills, and once those skills have been created, they can be used for other purposes.

Here in California, where our military economy has always been pretty high-tech and populated with a lot of defense contractors, we're accustomed to the idea of retooling that economy to civilian purposes. But it's a new idea for many base communities, which are accustomed to feeding off the base more directly. Nowadays, the combination of base expansion and increased contracting out may create a critical mass in other locations.

It all depends, of course, on what each base does and what types of activities the base contracts out. Most of the time -- as at Fort Drum -- it's the day-to-day work of the base that gets contracted out. But sometimes it's more.

Furthermore, the Pentagon's new reliance on surrounding communities to provide goods and services creates other opportunities. At first glance, of course, communities are focused mostly on development impact rather than opportunity. Where do we house all these soldiers and their families? How do we pay for roads and sewers? Indeed, this is the major topic of discussion among communities dealing with base expansions these days.

But one good thing the Pentagon has brought to most of these communities and their local officials is an imperative to work together in order to get things done. The Pentagon can't possibly pay for everything or coordinate everything. The growing base communities, just like the contracting base communities, have seen cooperative regional organizations sprout up to deal with all kinds of issues.

And that's exactly the kind of partnership that's required to exploit the new opportunity created by the Pentagon's contracting out philosophy. Whether they're expanding or getting smaller, communities and regions rarely know their assets or opportunities unless they work together to figure them out. Base towns that take a close look at where the base money is going and use that knowledge as the core of an economic development strategy will likely be more prosperous whether the base grows or shrinks in the future.