BRAC talk stirs local military base concerns

pdonohue@beaufortgazette.comFebruary 4, 2012 

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An announcement last month that the Base Closure and Realignment Commission might soon reconvene is piquing concerns about the future of Beaufort's two military bases and Naval Hospital Beaufort.

As part of the Pentagon's plan to cut $487 billion from projected spending over the next decade, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Jan. 26 that President Barack Obama will ask Congress for two new rounds of domestic base closures and realignments. Congress might then create a BRAC panel to examine the nation's military bases and recommend which, if any, should be closed or given different responsibilities.

Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort and Naval Hospital Beaufort were spared during five previous BRAC examinations, the most recent in 2005, and local officials say they will fight for a similar outcome if the commission reconvenes.

"Everything the chamber ... (has) been doing for the past five years has been in preparation for another round of BRAC, to ensure the long-term viability of our installations," said Blakely Williams, president and CEO of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce. "Beaufort County has always rallied behind our installations, and we expect the coming years to be no different."

A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-West Columbia, said Wilson hopes Beaufort's military bases and others across the state aren't adversely affected as the Pentagon tries to trim costs. Caroline Delleney added that Wilson will work with House leadership to find ways to "stop the execution of these drastic cuts from taking place."

The Pentagon is asking that BRAC be impaneled in 2013 and again in 2015, the Navy Times has reported.

In 2010, local and state leaders said the Navy's decision to base three new active-duty and two training Joint Strike Fighter squadrons at MCAS Beaufort would help protect the air station from closure.

Although Beaufort leaders still believe that decision will help the air station survive, they and those in other military communities are on alert, said retired Marine Col. John Payne, chairman of the Beaufort chamber's military enhancement committee.

"One of the positives for Beaufort is that training squadrons are typically more difficult to move than operational squadrons, due to the infrastructure involved," Payne said. "With the recent announcement, Beaufort's future, along with all other military communities nationwide, is up in the air."

A decision to close any of Beaufort's military bases would damage the local economy, officials have said.

The three bases have an estimated annual impact of $1.2 billion and employ more than 5,300 people, according to a study by Coastal Carolina University commissioned by the chamber.

Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/OnBaseBeaufort.

Related content:

Panel tasked with protecting S.C. military bases criticized, Jan. 14, 2012

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