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Springs takes laid-back approach to military closures

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Across the archipelago of American towns that have grown up around military installations, a near-universal fear is that of the potentially devastating economic consequences that could result from the closing of a base.

So from Virginia to California, cities and states are launching campaigns to fend off such misfortune, in anticipation of the Pentagon's next round of base closings, scheduled for 2005.

Except, that is, for Colorado Springs.

Despite the city's dependence on the more than 38,000 jobs provided by the area's five military installations, neither the Springs nor the state of Colorado is taking any special steps to fight potential closings here.

"We haven't formed some special committee, that kind of thing," said Jeff Crank, the governmental affairs director for the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce.

Crank says the Chamber's Defense Mission Task Force works continuously on supporting the local military economy. But no campaign is planned in direct preparation for the 2005 closure round.

"We look at it as something we do all the time," Crank said.

And, perhaps surprisingly, forgoing a "save-the-base" crusade might be the prudent approach, suggests one base-closure expert.

According to Christopher Hellman, an analyst with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, D.C., such campaigns rarely have much impact.

"I remain completely unconvinced of the efficacy of these types of initiatives," Hellman said.

Criteria not announced

Colorado Springs survived a scare during the last closure round, in 1995. Fort Carson -- the town's largest employer with more than 18,000 jobs -- was considered a candidate for closing, and local military economist Bill Weida said at the time that the community was ill-prepared for such a prospect ["Caught off Guard," March 9, 1994].

The Defense Department regularly tries to save money by eliminating unnecessary or redundant installations. The department may close as many as 25 percent of its installations during the next round, which could save more than $3.6 billion per year, according to estimates.

The criteria for the upcoming closings have not yet been announced, and the list of recommended closings won't be submitted to Congress until 2005.

Many states and communities, however, aren't waiting to take action. The state of Virginia, where the defense industry provides 198,000 jobs, recently formed a commission to fight base closings, headed by a former congressman and a former undersecretary of the Army. Georgia has put two former U.S. senators in charge similar efforts there, and California is also forming a base-retention commission.

Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, meanwhile, is planning no such initiatives. Owens has received no indication from the state's Congressional delegation that local bases are in jeopardy, says his spokesman, Dan Hopkins.

"If something like that became apparent, if it looked like there was going to be a need for that, the governor would certainly react," Hopkins said.

However, Hopkins and others express confidence that Colorado Springs installations won't be prime candidates for closings this time. The Air Force Academy and the North American Aerospace Defense Command serve unique purposes; Peterson and Schriever Air Force bases play central roles in the planned national missile-defense system; and Fort Carson has been substantially upgraded since 1995.

"We're in a fairly good situation here," Crank said.

The possibility of local closings also hasn't surfaced as a major concern for Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado, says Allard's spokesman, Dick Wadhams. In fact, earlier this month, Allard helped defeat an attempt in the Senate to postpone the 2005 closure round.

While some might perceive that vote as contrary to Colorado Springs' interests, Allard, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, cast what was "the right vote" for the nation as a whole, Wadhams said.

Colorado's other senator, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, voted for the postponement.

Congressman Joel Hefley, who represents Colorado Springs, refused to answer questions about what, if anything, he is doing to address the base-closure issue.

Feel-good efforts

Hellman, of the Center for Arms Control, cites several reasons why Colorado's laid-back attitude toward fighting closings may be the right approach.

In 2001, Hellman conducted a study showing that most communities that suffered base closings in the 1990s had, in fact, improved their economies since the closures through redevelopment and diversification.

"Far from being a death blow to communities, [diversification] can be successful -- and the numbers are there to prove it," Hellman said.

Moreover, because the closure process is designed to take politics out of the equation, campaigns to save local bases have little if any effect, Hellman maintains. The list of recommended closings is developed internally by the Pentagon, and Congress usually is asked to approve it "up or down."

Hellman suspects most save-the-base campaigns are mainly feel-good efforts by politicians who want to look like they're doing something.

"No politician in his or her right mind is going to stand up in a town meeting, when the subject of base closure comes up, and shrug his shoulders and go, 'I'm sorry, there's nothing I can do,'" Hellman said. "That's called suicide."

Communities are better off working day to day to maintain the viability of their installations, Hellman says. And if a possible closing looms, the question to ask is whether the community has a plan for life after the base -- the same question raised by Weida in Colorado Springs a decade ago.

"Your money and time are better spent working, in the lead-up to base closure, just on the general economic health of the community," Hellman said.

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