Spending by the military helped keep Clark’s business in Hinesville afloat when construction contractors and other corporate customers all but stopped placing orders during the recession. But with federal budgets squeezed tight and the Pentagon planning to downsize, Clark is now working to line up more civilian clients.
Now a report from the Army hints at how painful military cutbacks could be for Georgia. The cutbacks outlined in the report are purely hypothetical, and were designed to give military commanders and policymakers an idea of how severe the economic fallout could be for each base listed.
For Fort Stewart, Army analysts looked at the economic fallout from a worst-case reduction of 8,000 soldiers and civilian workers — roughly two combat brigades and their support staffs. They projected a loss of about $334 million in payroll that would cause annual sales to drop 21 percent in a five-county region around the Army post. The cuts were forecast to trigger additional losses of 965 military contractor positions and 791 non-military civilian jobs.
“If we were to lose even one of our four brigades, that means less people to eat in restaurants and less people that need my services,” said Clark, who also serves as vice chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce. “It affects so many different people. The Army is part of the main customer base in this town.”
The Army ordered the report, a draft of which was released Jan. 18, to size up the potential economic consequences for U.S. military communities as the Army seeks to shrink its total force from 562,000 active-duty soldiers to 490,000 by fiscal year 2020.
Among the 21 bases that face being hit hardest, three are in Georgia — Fort Stewart southwest of Savannah, Fort Benning in Columbus and Fort Gordon in Augusta.
At Fort Benning, Army analysts looked at a worst-case loss of 7,100 soldiers and civilians. While that’s only 18 percent of the 39,243 serving on the Army post, about half the total are students there for training.
The report estimated payroll losses at $297 million, enough to trigger further job losses for about 1,234 non-military civilian workers in Columbus and seven surrounding counties — five in Georgia and two in Alabama.
In Augusta, Fort Gordon has no combat units but rather is home to communication technology specialists and one of the South’s largest Army hospitals. The Army report looked at potential cuts of 4,300 soldiers and civilian workers. Payroll losses would equal roughly $180 million, causing an additional 1,097 non-military civilian jobs to be lost over a four-county area.
Will Ball, a former Navy secretary tapped by Gov. Nathan Deal to lead a new lobbying effort to protect Georgia’s military interests, said he’s not too worried about the numbers because Army policymakers have yet to suggest any specific cuts. But he said Georgia’s elected officials should take note of the big picture — that the state could face deep cuts at one or more of its bases.
“I view it as a warning shot clearly that the Army is facing some uncertain waters, but the analysis and the specifics and the preliminary decisions have yet to be made,” Ball said. “It’s a shot across the bow. It brings the budget debate close to home.”
From city halls to Congress, Georgia officials are responding, while insisting they’re not too alarmed.
U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop of Columbus has urged his constituents to submit public comments for inclusion with the final Army report that underscore the important of Fort Benning both to the military and as an economic anchor for west Georgia.
In Hinesville, Mayor Jim Thomas said he and other elected officials were drafting a letter to Georgia’s congressional delegation to remind them of reasons Fort Stewart, home to the 3rd Infantry Division and the largest Army post east of the Mississippi River, should be spared from any cutbacks.
“The socio-economic impact is huge, but it’s a snapshot” of what might happen, Thomas said of the Army’s report. “Ultimately the people who are going to make the decisions on this are not the Army, but it’s going to be the Congress.”
Fort Gordon is the smallest of the three Georgia posts named in the Army report, but with 13,800 troops it’s one of the Augusta area’s major employers. It serves as the military’s largest communications training post and is home to Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center, which has a staff of 2,620.
Tom Tuckey heads the CSRA Alliance for Fort Gordon, a group of Augusta officials and business leaders that works to protect the Army post and promote its expansion. Tuckey, who’s also a former garrison commander at Fort Gordon, said he doesn’t think Augusta needs to worry much about cutbacks that appear focused on trimming combat brigades.
For now, Tuckey said, he’s urging local leaders to stay calm.
“It’s too early to get folks overly excited and in a sky-is-falling mode,” Tuckey said. “When I really need them, I don’t want them to come back to me and say, ‘You’ve done this before.’”