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US Communities Fight to Save Their Military Bases - 2004-02-01

Late next year, the U.S. Defense Department will announce another round of military base closures, in an ongoing effort to consolidate operations and save money. The loss of a base can crush the local economy. So states are already campaigning to keep their bases open. Leda Hartman reports from North Carolina, a state with half a dozen military installations.

The Marine Corps air station at Cherry Point, North Carolina, is a noisy place. Outside, pilots train on fighter jets. Inside, at the base's Naval Air Depot, civilians repair aircraft.

A sign at Cherry Point's main gate reads, 'Pardon Our Noise, It's the Sound of Freedom.' It's also the sound of prosperity, even survival. Before the base opened in 1941, there wasn't much happening in the small coastal town of Havelock, besides hunting and bootlegging. Today, the base and the depot employ about 15,000 people. Their salaries total more than $1 billion a year.

"So it's very, very significant," says Wayne Forbush, the dean of the aeronautical training program at the local community college. "That's $5 million every single work day going out of that front gate - out buying hamburgers and dry cleaning, etceteras, and it's turned over, turned over, many times."

And that's why the four counties surrounding Cherry Point have allocated $165,000 for a campaign to keep the base open - more than $1 for each resident. And the state has gotten into the act, too. While Cherry Point's Naval Air Depot is the largest civilian employer in eastern North Carolina, the area is also home to five other military bases, including Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune. All told, the bases employ 100,000 military personnel and 20,000 civilians. Losing any of them, says Lieutenant Governor Beverly Perdue, would be devastating.

"Right now, eastern North Carolina is desperate for jobs, desperate for money. If we were the 51st state in America, we would be the poorest," says Ms. Perdue, who is charged with leading the effort to protect North Carolina's military installations.

The state has earmarked $2 million "BRAC-Proofing" - a reference to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which will come up with its "hit list" next year. The Commission will consider the military value of each base, as well as its sustainability into the future.

While North Carolina has a lot of military jobs to lose, it could also gain them if bases close in other states. Ms. Perdue is ready for that possibility. She touts North Carolina's community college training programs and willing work force. And if that sounds like a typical business pitch, it is.

"Just as I would recruit an industry, well, I'm saying to [Defense] Secretary Rumsfeld, 'Come on down, we want you here in North Carolina,'" says Ms. Perdue.

Of course, other states are saying the same thing, and trying to find ways to make their bases look better than everybody else's. In Ohio, the Department of Development gave $1.5 million to five communities near the Wright Patterson Air Force Base. In cash-strapped California, the legislature came up with $50,000 apiece for seven communities with bases at risk. And Georgia recently hired a retired colonel with base closure experience to lobby on behalf of two facilities near Atlanta.

Back in North Carolina, Havelock Mayor Pro Tem Jimmy Sanders is heading up a committee called the 'Alliance for Cherry Point's Tomorrow.'

The aircraft repair depot has appeared on BRAC's hit list twice in the past, but has managed to avoid closure. Mr. Sanders wants to persuade the Commission that this is one of the most military-friendly communities in the country. After all, the local furniture outlet offers military people instant credit, and the local café gives them curbside service.

"We live together, we play together, we worship together," says Mr. Sanders. "I cannot think of a better place to leave your family, your children, your wife when you're going to be deployed, than in a community that loves 'em and cares about 'em and will look out for 'em. We are the base and the base is us."

And local leaders hope to keep it that way for years to come. As part of that effort, they've hired a retired general with political contacts, to walk the halls in Washington on Cherry Point's behalf. They also have plans to allow local government to buy private property around the base, to protect it from encroachment by housing and commercial development.

As for mounting a campaign to diversify the region's economy, local leaders say no one enterprise can replace 15,000 jobs, so they have no choice but to fight for their bases.