Maryland Can't Escape Base Closings Any More, But It Fights for Fort Ritchie


Feel for the people of Cascade, the tiny Western Maryland community in the Catoctin Mountains, near the Pennsylvania border, who, if the Pentagon has its way, are about to see their economic lifeblood drain away with the proposed closure of the local Army base at Fort Ritchie.

It is one of five military installations tagged to close their gates in Maryland in the fourth round of military base closures since the end of the Cold War.

Maryland also stands to lose the Naval Surface Warfare Centers at Annapolis and White Oak; the Army Publications Distribution Center in Middle River; and the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda.

Until this round, Maryland had escaped virtually unscathed from the previous military shutdowns in 1988, 1991 and 1993. The state actually gained 1,700 jobs statewide as duties and missions were transferred here from bases closed elsewhere.

This year's fingering of five state installations will cost the state, after employment gains at some other local bases are discounted, 1,211 local civilian employees of the Defense Department and thousands of contract and service workers in surrounding communities. Another 481 military slots in the state are also at stake.

The Pentagon's hit list is now being scrutinized by the independent base closure commission, which can endorse or alter the list by adding bases to it or taking them off. Affected communities, such as Cascade, will have an opportunity to make their cases to the commission for keeping bases operating.

On Friday, Alton Cornella, a member of the commission, toured Fort Ritchie to get a first-hand impression of whether the base should be closed, and heard from three Maryland members of Congress -- Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, both Democrats, and Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, the Republican who represents Western Maryland -- why it should be kept open.

"Fort Ritchie has a strong case, based on merit, mission and value to the nation," said Ms. Mikulski.

Tomorrow, Commissioner Rebecca Cox will be at the Naval Surface Warfare Centers at Annapolis and White Oak, reviewing their claims to survival.

But how do bases get put on the list in the first place? And why?

The second question is simpler than the first to answer: Since the Cold War started to thaw in the mid-1980s, the United States has reduced the overall size of its military by about one-third, so ,, that it no longer needs so many bases, depots or research facilities to house the services and their operations.

The base closures are meant to bring the manpower and infrastructure levels into closer balance. Since 1988 about 400 .. military installations, or about one-fifth of the military's infrastructure, have been closed or had their functions reorganized. This year's round will add another 146 facilities.

This still leaves the Pentagon with more bases than it needs, a real estate surplus that is expensive to maintain but which is becoming increasingly difficult to reduce as the Pentagon runs out of easy choices.

Defense Secretary William J. Perry would like another round of closures in three or four years, but he acknowledges that Congress, which must approve any list, may not have the political fortitude to bear more of the inevitable pain.

"Now when a community discovers its base is at risk, I don't need to tell you that emotions can run very high," Mr. Perry told the National Association of Counties this month. "The immediate reaction is to fight the impending closure. We understand and we respect this reaction, but as a potential partner with you in base reuse, we urge you to hedge your bet.

"Fight the closure if you must, but be prepared for closure -- just in case."

In the previous base closure rounds, 85 percent of the Pentagon's original selections were upheld by the commission. Fort Ritchie, statistically, has slim chance of escaping the ax.

This brings us to how the bases are selected for closure. Here, three fundamental judgments come into play: the installation's military value; the savings that closure would produce; and the economic impact on the local community.

These three criteria are first weighed by the service chiefs in drawing up their original recommendations. This list then goes for review to Mr. Perry. This year he accepted, without deletion or addition, the lists prepared for him by the services, forwarding them to the commission.

In doing so he made several points:

* This year's proposals were not as large as he first planned because before any savings can be achieved, closing a base actually costs money. The up-front costs for this year's round are estimated to be $3.8 billion, little more than half the $6.9 billion initial cost of the previous base closure round in 1993, but still a significant sum from a strained budget.

"This is about as big a lump as we could swallow at this stage," said Mr. Perry.

* Although this year's round does not involve as many bases as in 1993 -- 146 installations, against 175 two years ago -- it garners more savings. In the first six years it is expected to save $4.0 billion, against $0.4 billion in projected savings over the six-year period following the 1993 round.

* The $56.7 billion savings over the next two decades from the four base closure rounds is vital for the modernization and readiness of U.S. forces.

Around the end of this decade, after the up-front costs have all been paid, the closures should start to produce annual savings of $6 billion, money earmarked for modernizing the national arsenal.

The closure list, if approved by the commission, the president and Congress, would leave the Army enough room to station 10 divisions, the Navy enough port space to berth and service 11 aircraft carriers, the Air Force enough space for 936 fighters, and the Marines enough basing for three divisions.

Those are the crucial force levels the Pentagon says it requires to carry out its current strategy of being able to fight two almost simultaneous regional conflicts.

Fort Ritchie, according to the Pentagon, has no longer any part to play in the master plan. In an era of consolidation it is regarded as too small to stand alone.

The 1111th Signal Battalion and the 1108th Signal Brigade should be relocated to Fort Detrick, which would assume control of the nuclear-proof "underground Pentagon" at Site R in Pennsylvania. Elements of the Information Systems Engineering Command at Fort Ritchie would be posted to the command's headquarters at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.

It would cost the Pentagon $93 million to close the base. This would be offset by $83 million in savings during the draw-down period, and would then produce recurrent savings of $65 million annually. Over the next 20 years, according to official figures, closure of the base would save the Department of Defense a net $712 million.

First established as a garrison for the Maryland National Guard in 1926, it became an intelligence training center during World War II, was deactivated at war's end, and reopened to service the Pentagon's nearby nuclear-proof underground bunker in 1952.

Over the past three decades it has become the linchpin of economic activity in Washington County, contributing $35 million year in direct salary input alone. Worst hit will be local small-business owners.

The human cost: the 2,344 jobs on the base and 866 jobs off it over five years, according to the Pentagon. That represents 4.8 percent of the employment in the Hagerstown metropolitan statistical area, a major blow by any measure.

While the lost jobs might eventually be replaced, what is far more difficult to recoup is the lost purchasing power resulting from the transfer of the military units out of the area.

The Maryland congressional delegation is organizing a campaign reverse all the closures in Maryland, and the local community around Fort Ritchie has already formed a "what if" committee -- what if the base closes? It is working on identifying replacements for the base activities, be they increased tourism, business or retirement communities.

The ideal, in the words of Defense Secretary Perry, is for a base like Fort Ritchie to be closed with dignity and for a community like Cascade to reopen with pride.

Mr. Perry likes to point to the Sacramento Army Depot, where the flag was lowered for the last time last year. The base employed 2,300. Today Packard-Bell, the nation's third-largest personal computer manufacturer, is moving in with plans to hire 3,000. Over the past three decades, 88,000 federal jobs have been lost due to base closures, but 171,000 jobs -- almost twice as many -- have been created in or around closed bases.

Speaking to the National Association of Counties, Mr. Perry quoted Samuel Johnson: "Change is not made without inconvenience, even when it is for the better."

He then added: "The base closings in your community, I understand, are even more than inconvenient; they can be painful. But in the long run, they can be for the better, not only for our forces but also for your communities.

"But the faster we close bases, the faster we in defense will see the savings and the faster local taxpayers will see jobs and revenues."

In Cascade and the other areas of Maryland facing possible base closures, local leaders and politicians are preparing to fight the Pentagon's plans -- even if they might be for the better.

Gilbert A. Lewthwaite, a reporter in The Baltimore Sun's Washington Bureau, covers military affairs.

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