State remains vigilant on military base closures: Protecting jobs could still be tricky; Base Realignment and Closure process to conclude by year’s end

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Historically, the vast majority of the military’s initial Base Realignment and Closure recommendations are included in the final cut. Even so, Indiana can’t afford to let down its defenses yet.

“We’re still very much on this case, and are going to stay that way through the end of this process,” said John Clark, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels’ senior adviser for economic growth. “We’re going to remain vigilant. These were recommendations, not conclusions.”

For years, Indiana’s political leaders and economic developers had feared the worst from the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, process. But U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s recommendations were surprisingly favorable for Hoosiers. If enacted, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service center at Lawrence will gain 3,495 jobs.

And while the Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center, 90 miles southwest of Indianapolis, is slated to lose 683 of its approximately 4,000 jobs, most officials chose to emphasize the fact that the base-and its high-tech engineering capacity-were retained at all.

“It’s certainly a relief, when you look at what some of the other areas [around the country] are facing this week with complete shutdown,” said Ron Arnold, executive director of the Daviess County Economic Development Council and the West Gate at Crane technology park. “That being said, for our area to lose 700 jobs will initially still have a huge impact.”

The BRAC process is far from finished. After BRAC’s commission considers Rumsfeld’s recommendations, Congress and President Bush will both get chances to sign off. Their decisions should be final by November.

“Even though the history of this process-and we have four previous [BRACs] to measure-shows that 80 to 85 percent of what was initially recommended ultimately goes into effect, we can’t assume that result,” Clark said. “We’re going to stay very protective of the gains that were made for the state in that process. We’re also going to remain protective about the vital military assets in place at Crane.”

Indiana will continue to lean heavily on the Rolodex of its governor, who ran the Office of Management and Budget for President George W. Bush and was a member of Ronald Reagan’s administration. As far back as his days at OMB, Clark said, Daniels was pressing for the changes that led to the finance center job gains.

“We’re not trying to take credit for armwrestling the Department of Defense into doing this at all,” Clark said. “But another advantage to the state in this whole process is having Mitch’s experience and contacts with the DOD administration.”

While continued lobbying will be part of Indiana’s challenge, it’s clearly not all of it. Many practical steps also must be taken. And the clock is ticking.

For example, communities affected by BRAC are entitled to federal economic transition assistance. Actually getting it is a matter of careful attention to detail. Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman, a Republican, is leading the effort on this front, Clark said.

Just as the effort to protect Crane isn’t finished, Hoosiers shouldn’t yet consider the 3,495 finance jobs in the bank. Their current host states will work hard to reverse the BRAC recommendations.

Some say folks accustomed to living in the Washington, D.C., area will be reluctant to move to Indiana along with their jobs. If they do, they’ll be pleasantly surprised, Clark said.

“People, I think, will be impressed by how much more house they can get for their families,” he said. “But there may be ties that keep them [in Washington] that may make those good jobs available for people in Indiana.”

With Crane’s situation closer to secure, economic developers around the base are having an easier time pitching their case. David Reed, managing director of locally based CB Richard Ellis, is marketing and leasing the West Gate tech park adjacent to Crane. He’s in the process of contacting Crane’s top 100 vendors to see if they’ll consider relocation. Three are already interested in building facilities there, Reed said.

If Crane loses 683 jobs, any companies that commit to the region should have a surplus of prospective employees, Reed said, all of them top-notch.

“Daviess, Martin and Greene counties are wonderful places to live,” he said. “A lot of those folks who may be displaced would like to continue to work there.”

Cautious optimism is the most common current BRAC reaction, because it ain’t over until it’s over.

“When the list is sent to the president and he accepts it,” Arnold said, “that’s when I’ll feel a lot better about what’s going on.”

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