Hinesville Mayor James Thomas has told Congress that Fort Stewart is too valuable a strategic asset to reduce in size or close.
Having a military base nearby can be a major benefit to a local economy but the elimination or reduction in personnel of such a facility can be potentially devastating.
Several communities throughout Georgia have had that possibility hanging over their heads for over a year now since it was announced in 2013 that a massive restructuring of the U.S. Army would take place, reducing the size of the service and eliminating 10 bases. It was widely reported that those bases facing cuts would be in Georgia, Texas, Kentucky, North Carolina, New York, Kansas, Colorado and Washington.
Officials in several Georgia communities have joined forces to deliver a message to political leaders about the value of the bases in their areas.
James Thomas, mayor of Hinesville, which is home to Fort Stewart and the 3rd Infantry Division, said he and other local leaders have traveled to Washington, D.C., several times to make sure legislators know the important role the bases hold.
“We want to keep in front of Congress and the Pentagon that Fort Stewart and Hinesville are too valuable\ a strategic asset to reduce in size or close,” Thomas said.
He said the mayors of Savannah, where Hunter Army Airfield is located, and Richmond Hill, which is 20 miles east of Hinesville, have also taken their cases to Washington. And Georgia officials also have linked with representatives from other cities in neighboring states such as South Carolina. Thomas said the idea is to make it a regional concern.
This is an issue that goes beyond Hinesville and Savannah,” Thomas said. “It goes to eight major military bases in Georgia.”
Among Georgia’s other Army bases are Fort Benning in Columbus and Fort Gordon in Augusta. Last year, it was reported that based on an Army proposal, Fort Gordon could lose up to 4,300 soldiers and civilians, 6,000 jobs, $300 million in regional sales, and $11 million to $13 million in state tax revenue. Asked how Hinesville’s concerns are received, Thomas replied, “We are always taken seriously.”
The Georgia officials also have taken their concerns to the Georgia Legislature.
“There are no closures right now,” Thomas said. “Congress has not approved [any cuts]. Eventually it will happen.” He predicts that Congress won’t make specific decisions about significant military cuts until fiscal year 2017, and it would take an additional five to six years for reductions or closures to go into effect.
Thomas said that Fort Stewart currently has 27,000 soldiers.
“It could be minor or catastrophic,” Thomas said, adding that the base has a $5.2 billion a year economic impact on the area—bringing Hinesville $1.6 billion a year from income alone. “Georgia’s military installations make a tremendous contribution to our national defense,” said Congressman Austin Scott, who represents Georgia’s 8th District and serves on the House Armed Services Committee. “With growing threats abroad, Congress must end the sequester cuts that have weakened our military capabilities and raise the possibility of workforce reductions at defense installations in Georgia.”
Scott added that last year he successfully defended against proposed cuts to the defense civilian workforce and helped prevent the retirement of the A-10C Warthog, which is located at Moody Air Force Base.
Columbus is another community trying to defend against possible cuts to the Army base there.
On Feb. 18 a Department of Army listening session, hosted by the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce and the Fort Benning Partnership, was held at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center at which community members had the opportunity to share their thoughts and concerns about possible reductions at Fort Benning.
More than 600 people attended along with several congressmen, Senate representatives, local mayors, school leaders and other officials. The Army was represented by a brigadier general and colonel at the session that lasted nearly three hours.
Gary Jones, executive vice president of military affairs at the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, said that if sequestration goes into effect 14,000 military, civilian and defense contractor\ positions could be eliminated from Fort Benning and the region. If those cuts take place, the Columbus area faces an annual $1.3 billion loss in salaries, sales and taxes, he said.
“You can see that would be devastating,” Jones said. He added that sequestration has nothing to do with any national defense strategy determining the need and the size of the military.
Jones cited worldwide unrest and threats such as more aggression from Russian, threats from North Korea, our role in Iraq as reasons for continued strengthening not weakening of the U.S. military.
“Greater and greater demands are placed on our Army,” he said. Last year Columbus launched an official letter writing campaign to encourage residents to share their concerns about the possible cuts with the military. It resulted in thousands of letters mailed to Army personnel. Jones said elected leaders are committed to doing “everything in their power to stop sequestration and stop the budget cuts.” The Army is holding similar “listening sessions” at some 30 army installations and posts nationwide, according to Jones.