Lawrence, Crane build on base realignment: Economic developers hope to increase job count

Now that Indiana has survived the latest round of military base closings relatively unscathed, state leaders are turning to their next task: spurring economic development around the state’s two largest remaining military assets.

After two years of review, the military’s Base Realignment and Closure process concluded Nov. 9 when Congress allowed the BRAC commission’s recommendations to become law.

When the commission unveiled its recommendations this spring, state officials were relieved the Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center in southwest Indiana would keep its gates open. The commission proposed eliminating 600 of its 4,000 jobs, though the cuts shrank below 100 by the end of the process.

Meanwhile, Lawrence officials were flush with excitement over the commission’s initial recommendation, which would have boosted employment at the Defense Finance and Accounting Service Center from about 3,000 to more than 6,500.

The reality isn’t yet so dramatic, admitted John Clark, Gov. Mitch Daniels’ senior adviser for economic growth. Just 800 additional jobs are immediately planned for the center, though the number could grow as the military decides how to consolidate 26 finance centers into five. Two of the five, in New York and Maine, are already at full capacity.

“So it’s essentially the one here and the two in Ohio that are arm-wrestling for the remainder of all those [consolidated] positions,” he said. “We think there’s a very solid basis for us to remain bullish about getting even more than the 800 jobs talked about so far. We mean to get the lion’s share of those if we possibly can.”

Meanwhile, Lawrence is beginning to draft plans to create a new city center on 100 acres of Fort Benjamin Harrison. Lawrence Economic Development Director John Goss declined to be specific about what the center will include, but said plans likely will be complete by next summer. The city already has a tax-incrementfinancing, or TIF, district in the area to capture funding for infrastructure improvements.

As supporting businesses spring up around the finance center, TIF revenue should increase to help fund development of the city center. Goss thinks the city center, in turn, will fuel development of high-density condos and apartment buildings nearby.

“Lawrence is really going to undergo a positive transformation in the next five years,” Goss said.

Lawrence officials are hopeful the city will still gain the bulk of the 3,500 jobs it expected in the spring. Goss pointed out that the final BRAC report authorizes up to 2,800 new jobs for the finance center.

“No number is ever final,” he said. “It’s already changed seven times or more.”

The Navy’s Crane Surface Warfare Center, a military engineering hub in rural southwest Indiana, was the other major asset Daniels attempted to protect.

Clark noted that as recently as March, the military had slated Crane for complete closure. Indiana’s congressional delegation and southwest Indiana officials joined Daniels in aggressive efforts to make Crane’s case.

“I don’t want to say it was just our own lobbying effort that did that,” Clark said. “This was an all-hands-on-deck operation.”

Towns around Crane have shifted their focus toward attracting businesses that support the warfare center’s mission. Mike Gentile, executive director of the Bloomington-based Southern Indiana Business Alliance, said the current mind-set of community leaders is wary optimism.

The Department of Defense is still looking for $36 billion in savings, as costs of the Iraq War and the war on terrorism escalate, Gentile noted. That means Crane’s fate is far from secure.

The key to keeping Crane in the long term, Gentile said, will be to continue increasing its military relevance by honing its high-tech engineering mission. Meanwhile, the private sector must continue to diversify and attract companies that augment the base.

Elected officials, local military commanders and economic developers may only have a few years to work before the military again considers closing Crane.

“We really feel the threat is not completely gone. What we need to have our eyes on is having the area be more resilient,” he said. “We need to take the lull, and I’m not sure how long it will last, to expand the technology base in the region.”

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