Economy and Government

JOHN KETZENBERGER Commentary: Calling chits to save Crane

May 2, 2005

About halfway between Bill Cook's hometown of Bloomington and French Lick lies the Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center. Thanks to billionaire Cook's bet on the area's historic hotels, it looks like French Lick's riverboat is about to come in.

But it also looks like Crane's ship, and the nearly 4,000 jobs that go along with it, is about to sail, and no amount of money can keep it in a Hoosier port.

Indiana crapped out a decade ago when the first Base Realignment and Closure study fingered Fort Benjamin Harrison and Grissom Air Force Base. Economic developers in Peru are still rolling the dice in hopes the vast base becomes a viable industrial park.

Hoosiers did better with Fort Ben. The federal government actually updated the sprawling finance center that cuts Army paychecks, and development of all kinds thrives around the now-state park.

In two weeks, the secretive BRAC process will reach its first denouement when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld issues the findings of a global inspection of the nation's military facilities. Rumsfeld will recommend to the nine members of the BRAC commission those bases deemed superfluous.

Hoosier officials, from Sens. Richard Lugar and Evan Bayh on down, are worried Crane will be among those on the chopping block.

They should be. It's too bad more Hoosiers aren't aware of the situation, because what they don't know may affect how Indiana remakes itself in a knowledge-based economy.

The 100 square miles of Greene and Martin counties covered by Crane surely has the highest concentration of skilled researchers in the state outside Indianapolis, West Lafayette and Bloomington. Of the 3,400 Navy employees, 57 percent are scientists, engineers or technicians, according to Crane's Web site.

They develop some of the Navy's most advanced electronic devices and weapons in the wooded hills just west of the Hoosier National Forest. The employees and their families live in the small towns that ring the base. The government spends nearly $475 million a year in Indiana through the base in salaries and purchased services.

Most of that will evaporate if Rumsfeld includes Crane among the bases to close. The highly skilled Navy personnel will be reassigned to other bases. The civilians working with them will be out of jobs. And Indiana's chance to leverage this incredible asset, then, is lost. As Indiana has finally embraced the obvious and worked to link work in the labs at Indiana University and Purdue University, it's missing the opportunity to do the same with Crane. While the state's business leaders have been slow to recognize the potential that resides at Crane, its political leaders have spent the last two years pleading its case directly and indirectly to those readying the initial BRAC report. That effort, though, is star-crossed. Gov. Mitch Daniels' hand-picked lobbyist, former U.S. Rep. Tillie Fowler of Florida, who was chairwoman of the highest-ranking non-military advisory board to the secretary of defense, died just weeks into the job. And Crane's leading internal BRAC coordinator, Bob Matthews, is out of commission with a head injury suffered while working on his lawn. There is a fate worse than total closure, though. Crane includes one of the nation's largest ordnance depots with 550 Army personnel overseeing a lot of things that go boom. If the military sees little research and development potential in the remote southern Indiana hills but likes storing bombs there, local economic developers won't have much land to convert to nascent industrial parks.

Still, local development officials around Crane remain optimistic. State officials are, too. It's better to tout Crane's potential than worry too much about its possible demise. Since we're looking on the bright side, it's possible the Navy's land-locked port will become the repository of some other unfortunate community's realigned military operations.

Aside from the increasing role Crane plays in developing technological gear, Indiana has some political clout. President Bush has the penultimate say in this process, with the ability to reconfigure the commission's report before it goes to Congress for an up-or-down vote.

The governor already has met with his former boss, whom he served as director of the Office of Management and Budget. It's unlikely Hoosiers will know before it happens whether the Blade will call in any markers on Crane's behalf.

Bill Cook's willingness to take a chance in the same neck of the woods, though, is a pretty good example of doing what it takes to make good things happen in Indiana.



Ketzenberger is managing editor of IBJ.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to jketzenberger@ibj.com.
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