Mississippi communities brace themselves for certain seasons that hold the possibility of bringing damage — hurricane season, tornado season, West Nile virus season.
Several Mississippi cities have to prepare every few years for a “season” of a different kind of damage, particularly Pascagoula, Biloxi, Meridian and Columbus.
The BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) season slammed Mississippi the middle of May, hitting Pascagoula hard, damaging Biloxi and Meridian, and leaving Columbus not only undamaged but elated (because of an increase in personnel). In this round of base closings recommended by the Pentagon — the process started in 1988 — Mississippi stands to lose 1,678 civilian and military jobs.
The Pentagon has named 33 major military installations to be closed and hundreds of others to be closed or downsized. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that the move would save some $48.8 billion over 20 years.
“Given the scope of the cuts contained in these recommendations, I am pleased to report that the state of Mississippi fared very well,” according to U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi).
Gov. Haley Barbour said that losing only 1,678 military and civilian jobs out of some 40,000 was not a bad result. Neither Cochran nor Barbour, however, conceded that all of the suggested closings would take place.
Not much of a surprise
In Pascagoula, the Pentagon’s recommendation produced some vows to fight the closing, but the announcement came as no surprise to the community and some leaders, while saying that they would continue to fight for the base, conceded the likelihood of the closing and downplayed its economic impact.
George Freeland, Jackson County Economic Development Foundation (EDF) president, said that a year ago, the base’s economic value was set at “about $75 million to $76 million” and that in May of 2005 the value is “less than $50 million.”
The naval base’s closing was “inevitable,” according to Lee Lechleidner, United Services Organization (USO) Center director. He said that the Defense Department had to say, “Why have a base with no ships?”
And the chairman of the Singing River Island Diversification Committee, (SRIDC) Den Knecht, indicated that the committee has been worried about the fate of the naval station because there are fewer ships docked there.
Bill Crawford, deputy director of the Mississippi Development Authority, said that, with its Aegis missile cruisers being retired, the recommendation to close the base was not unexpected.
Pascagoula, which once had six of the cruisers at the naval base, has seen two of the remaining three cruisers stationed there — Yorktown and Ticonderoga — decommissioned. The third is due to be decommissioned later this year.
Knecht believes that the naval station’s economic impact could well be even less in the future.
Jerry St. Pé, chairman of the EDF, said, “The base has been declining and, as a result of that, I think most of the reduction in the economic value of the base has probably already occurred.”
The SRIDC hasn’t given up hope of retaining the naval base. Knight indicated that the committee will work with federal and state officials, including U.S. Senator Trent Lott (R-Mississippi), whose home looks out onto the facility. Lott said that Mississippi faced the BRAC process three times in the 1990s, and the state had never lost a base to BRAC. He is optimistic that “as we go through the process, (the bases’) huge value will be recognized.”
The Pentagon contends that closing the Pascagoula base will save $666 million over 20 years.
Release of the Pentagon’s list of recommended closings is only the first part of the BRAC process. The nine commissioners are holding public hearings around the country before submitting its own recommendation for closings to President Bush by September 8. Ultimately, Congress will approve the final cuts.
Not too bad, but…
The Naval Air Station Meridian’s loss of only 16 jobs was a big relief to citizens of Lauderdale County, particularly because the base was on the BRAC lists in 1993 and 1995.
But Crawford said that “closing the KC-135R air refueling mission at Meridian’s Key Field — the birthplace of air-to-air refueling — may be the most contentious recommendation.”
What makes this closing particularly contentious is the history of Key Field and the fact that three generations of National Guard families have served at the base.
A group called the Meridian Military team has declared that “the fight is on” to save the refueling facility, which has nine refueling aircraft.
Utilizing civilian facilities
The 402 jobs that would be lost at Keesler are from the proposed closing of Keesler Medical Center and its transformation into an outpatient clinic with the capacity for same-day surgery.
Officials at the base said that the Pentagon justified the changes to the medical center by relying on civilian facilities within 40 miles of the base.
U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Mississippi), whose district includes Biloxi, maintains that the closure “could have a devastating impact on soldiers” and that he is also worried about the potential impact on military retirees.
A former doctor at the medical center says that, for years, the center has “struggled to maintain an adequate inpatient census.” Since personnel from the medical center may be employed in the proposed outpatient center, an accurate picture of potential economic loss is not possible.
Closure of the mothballed army ammunition plant at Stennis Space Center in Hancock County differs from the others because the state and the community requested that the plant be closed so that the site can be developed.
Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at email@example.com.