The pivotal training role played by Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and the impending arrival of the Joint Strike Fighters at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort will work in the area's favor in the face of the automatic spending cuts and the ongoing government shutdown, panelists at a University of South Carolina Beaufort session said Wednesday.
But Moderator Stephen Sorett told the audience of about 25 at the Hilton Head Gateway Campus that future sequester cuts could threaten the number of F-35 fighters produced, which could ultimately lead to a diminished role for the air station.
The government shutdown also factors into the area's economic future. The shutdown leaves the budget undecided, panelist Kraig Siracuse said, meaning the sequester cuts in the 2014 fiscal year could vary between $36 and $56 billion.
A Republican-backed budget with $967 billion in discretionary spending would include higher cuts to domestic departments like education and health and human services than defense spending, he said.
A Democratic-backed budget slightly over $1 trillion would see an increase in the defense spending cuts.
JOB GROWTH KEY
Military budget cuts from the sequester and the economic downturn over the past six years have hurt the county economy, which relies on government jobs as its largest source of employment, panelist and Lowcountry Economic Alliance executive director Kim Statler said.
"Beaufort County's job anchors are culture and entertainment, government, and retail," she said. "They're also the three most volatile job markets."
Since the recession began in 2007, the county has lost 10 percent of its jobs, she said. It has also experienced a slower job growth rate than the national average.
Sequester cuts also threaten the $1.2 billion the military pours into the local economy, Sorett said.
To combat the job losses, Statler said the economic alliance is targeting fast growing industries -- aviation, information technology, and manufacturing and assembly.
Together with the city of Beaufort, it set aside 165 acres directly across U.S. 21 from the air station for the Beaufort Commerce Park.
The proximity of the park to the air station would be attractive to military suppliers, Statler said.
Part of the sales pitch to companies involves selling the skilled labor pool coming out of the local military installations. Statler said Sequester cuts and military personnel reductions have meant an increase in the number of retiring servicemembers, many with experience in aviation.
BASE CLOSURES LOOMING
Base realignment and closure sessions, or BRAC, expected in 2015 will focus primarily on Air Force and Army installations.
Those branches have large bases where space is no longer needed and face major force reductions, panelist CeCe Siracuse said.
The Marine Corps is will take a smaller hit, losing an estimated 15,000 Marines by 2017, Siracuse said.
She said Parris Island and its importance to training -- the base is responsible for all female recruits nationwide and all male ones east of the Mississippi River -- will likely protect it.
But the air station's fate is intertwined with the Joint Strike Fighter.
With no indication of cutbacks to the fighter's production numbers, the base appears to be in good shape.
Sorett said the base's unique conditions, among them restrictive land-use agreements and its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and a Georgia bombing range, would make it attractive even if jet numbers were deduced.
Bluffton resident Jay Martinez said he was encouraged by the "good, collaborative environment" between the county and the local military.
"I got the sense that Beaufort is seen favorably and the bases are high performing," he said. "It looks like we are competitive and the people on the panel are good at what they do. The threat here is doing nothing before these closures come up, but it looks like they're taking advantage of the opportunity."
A second informational session, also held by USCB's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, will be held at 3 p.m. today in the Sandstone Building on Carteret Street in Beaufort.
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.