It’s never too early to start planning for the next Base Realignment and Closure round of military cutbacks. But for Colorado Springs, it already could be too late.
Years ago, other states started investing heavily in commissions and reports to address the upcoming BRAC process, which likely will occur in 2015 and be implemented in 2017. Colorado, so far, has mounted only a lukewarm response to the potential threat — but that could change as community leaders sound the call to action.
Other aggressive states — especially Florida, Alabama and Kansas — could seek this state’s military assets to bolster their own. Colorado needs to take an offensive stance, says Scott Bryan, owner of Bryan Construction and a member of the Regional Coalition for Federal Strategic Action.
“We need an aggressive statewide strategy to protect and enhance current missions,” Bryan said. “This isn’t just a threat, but we should view it as an opportunity for us. It’s a chance to grow the capacity to expand the defense presence here — and we should commit resources to that.”
The reality is that the days of increasing military budgets are over, at least for the time being, said Tim Ford, CEO of the Association of Defense Communities, a nonprofit group aimed at helping communities retain military assets, and aiding their recovery if the assets are removed.
While there’s no guarantee that BRAC will occur in 2015, the Department of Defense has indicated it wants to close bases and realign missions as a way to make necessary budget cuts. That means every base in the nation could be affected in some way.
“The Army’s going to have personnel cuts,” said Ford. “And the Air Force has said that it has cut everywhere it can cut, but has 20 to 25 percent excess base capacity. Every base is going to have fewer people. That’s going to change the economy.”
Smart communities are ones that have always been involved and engaged with the Pentagon, but even that might not help during the latest rounds of budget talks. Smarter communities have a plan in place in case their military bases are closed, Ford said.
That’s because the next round of BRAC is going to be “all about the money,” he said. The 2005 BRAC, done in the middle of rising defense budgets, was completed to realign the forces. That’s not the case now.
“DoD isn’t going to be moving things around for the sake of moving them,” Ford said. “This round, if it happens, is going to be about creating a smaller military footprint. Everyone knows it’s coming.
“Communities should be prepared to argue for keeping their bases, but also should be prepared with a plan in case that doesn’t happen. Some communities are moving to diversify the economy, just in case, so they’re less dependent on the military.”
Closing bases would spell trouble for the Colorado Springs economy, which fared well in the 2005 BRAC round, gaining a brigade combat team at Fort Carson to overcome other smaller reductions. Since then, the Army post has been selected for a combat aviation brigade (helicopters), another big boost to its mission.
Schriever and Peterson Air Force bases are home to missile defense missions, the 50th Space Wing and the U.S. Northern Command — all missions vital to the military. The Air Force Academy will remain here, but Cheyenne Mountain is basically a data-storage and warm-standby facility these days, aside from some satellite monitoring.
It’s no secret that other states want the missions — and the accompanying defense contractors — to relocate to their communities. It’s a lot to lose. The Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance estimates that the military brings $7 billion in economic impact to the state.
So what should the Colorado Springs community do to protect the military assets and jobs that are part of the military base?
“It’s not about creating a brochure that says, ‘We love the military,’” Ford said. “Communities need to create ways to make it cheaper for the military to do their jobs. Congress recently passed a law allowing the military and communities to team up to provide services to make it cheaper — things like garbage collecting, police and fire. Anything that makes it cheaper to be there is allowed, any service a city provides. Partnering is a good way to save money for both the city and the base.”
Also, he said, military communities should listen to the Pentagon and to local commanders.
“If there’s an encroachment issue, then fix that,” he said. “Really get involved and keep talking — regardless of whether there’s a BRAC or not.”
Even before Congress takes action to authorize another BRAC, leaders in Colorado Springs are trying to mobilize support. Bryan called for Mayor Steve Bach and Gov. John Hickenlooper to get involved — and start early.
“We gained from the last round of BRAC, and we stand to gain in this one,” Bryan said.
The 2005 BRAC closed 22 bases around the country, and realigned several other missions. Some of the decisions weren’t based on financial factors, but on creating joint cooperation between the branches of the military to fight wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But estimated savings from the moves totaled about $35.6 billion during a 20-year period. This round, analysts say, will be aimed at cutting costs even further.
The state can’t afford to wait, Bryan said. The six military bases in Colorado now employ 70,000 military and civilian workers and have an estimated $6.9 billion economic impact.
El Paso County, of course, stands to lose the most. During 2011, the military benefit to the county equaled $3.8 billion, Bryan said. That will already be cut by 9 percent, he said, thanks to budget cuts already being implemented by the Pentagon.
A negative BRAC outcome could devastate the region’s economy, Bryan said.
The risks: losing a brigade at Fort Carson, losing missile defense missions, and the possible loss of the global positioning satellite (GPS) mission at Schriever AFB. Not to mention the reductions in local defense contracts and jobs.
“We need to grow our capacity here to expand our defense presence for the future,” Bryan said. “We need to make sure we’re meeting the military’s needs here. BRAC is coming; I can assure you of that. We need to be on the offense this time.”
That’s exactly the right approach, Ford said.
“You want a constant conversation,” he said. “Don’t wait until BRAC starts. It’s definitely too late then.”
Bryan is hopeful that BRAC could bring more missions to Colorado Springs, not fewer. Doing that will take effort from the entire state, he said.
“We need to let the rest of the state know that this isn’t just about what happens in the Springs; it’s going to affect the whole state,” he said. “While we have the most military assets, those are jobs that benefit the entire state, not just the Pikes Peak region. We need to let the DoD know the state is ‘open for business’ with the military.”
That could mean finally solving the long-term problem of encroachment at Peterson AFB, said Mike Jorgensen, chairman of the board of directors for the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance.
“We’re talking to Peterson about meeting their needs for more space,” he said. “And we’ve worked to make sure that traffic onto Fort Carson is moving more smoothly, with the Gate 19 project. We need to let the military use the Piñon Canyon space — not expand it, just use it fully. Those are the things that send the right message.”
Peterson has tried for years to negotiate for more space — asking for 800 acres to move into new missions, boosting its footprint by one-third. The city already leases land to Peterson, at $1 a year, and allows the Air Force to use runways at Colorado Springs Airport. Although deals have been rumored in the past, none have been finalized.
Jorgensen said the Business Alliance is aware of Peterson’s need for room, and is working to find ways to meet those needs.
But it might not be enough. Colorado always has viewed the military as an “extra” instead of a necessary asset, Ford said. The state’s efforts are much weaker than those in Florida, Alabama and Kansas.
“Your neighbor, Kansas, has a committee that has been in place for decades,” Ford said. “It’s well-funded by the state, and very active. Colorado doesn’t have a very active approach, not right now.”
Alabama recently hired a defense consulting firm, The Summit Group, and the 2005 BRAC chairman to head its efforts to keep the state’s military assets.
Colorado has a committee, called the Colorado National Defense Support Council, and Springs Mayor Steve Bach is part of the group. Mayors from other communities are also involved, said city spokeswoman Cindy Aubrey in an email. Retired Lt. Gen. Edward G. Anderson is volunteer chairman of the council, which was set up last November, but its website is not yet active.
“The governor, Mayor Bach, other mayors and regional leaders, such as the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, will continue to join forces to strongly represent Colorado, Colorado Springs and other Colorado communities with our congressional delegation and senior Pentagon officials,” Aubrey said in the email. “Mayor Bach continues to maintain close contact with Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, as well as Rep. Doug Lamborn.”
Colorado Springs hired its first federal lobbyist two years ago, and created the Regional Coalition for Strategic Federal Action, which receives private funding from businesses. The Business Alliance — under its former role as the Chamber of Commerce — has made annual trips to Washington, D.C., to speak personally with Department of Defense officials.
Jorgensen said the Business Alliance also created a new council to address BRAC and bring groups to the table — aerospace, defense and military segments of the community.
“It’s not replacing the military affairs council,” he said. “But it’s adding to it. We want to know about the opportunities and threats, and we want to speak with one voice about the mission and about the effect that BRAC could have on the community.”
But compared to the efforts of other states to court the Pentagon, Colorado’s efforts so far appear lackluster. For example, Maryland gained new residents thanks to the 2005 BRAC. To make the move easier, the state offered $2,500 for down payments on mortgages for those new arrivals.
And Florida paid $1.4 million to The Summit Group in 2010 to identify the state’s weak points and highlight its strengths. While much of the report is not public, it’s clear that the Sunshine State is gearing up to fight for more missions and more defense assets.
“They also have a defense commission,” Ford said. “And they make grants to communities with military presence, so they can work on their own to create relationships and a dialogue with the Pentagon.”
In the long run, the ability to work with the Pentagon, to make it cheaper and easier for the military to operate in the state — those specifics are what the BRAC commission will be looking for, Ford said.
“This one is going to be about cuts,” he said. “There’s nowhere that won’t feel those cuts — it’s going to be nationwide. We’re going to have a smaller defense footprint. It’s the reality. But the communities that can save money for the federal government, those are the ones that have the best chance.”