05/08/05 — Community awaits BRAC decision

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Community awaits BRAC decision

By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on May 8, 2005 2:11 AM

In less than a week, Wayne County could know if Seymour Johnson Air Force Base will close, be realigned or left alone.

The loss of the base, or a realignment that alters its mission, would cost the county plenty.

Every day the base contributes more than $1.3 million to the economy, a recent U.S. Air Force analysis showed.

That's $1,000 a minute.

But that could all change within a few days.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is expected to announce a list of military bases recommended for closure or realignment to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission.

Seymour Johnson could be on the list.

Base officials are not allowed to take a stand on BRAC. And they say, they, too don't know what the announcement will bring.

So, the job of keeping Seymour Johnson in Wayne County falls to local officials and the public.

All have a lot to lose.

City and county officials are working with the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce Military Affairs Committee and the Seymour Support Council to make sure Washington knows how important the base is to Wayne.

According to Air Force figures, Seymour Johnson pumped nearly $507 million into the economy in 2004. A large chunk of that was salaries paid to airmen and civilians. The base's military payroll, including 5,151 active duty personnel, 927 Air National Guardsmen and 400 individual mobilization augmentees, was more than $228 million last year.

Seymour Johnson employed 1,122 civilians, either directly or through contracts, who earned nearly $49 million.

But the base does not just provide paychecks.

Last year, Seymour Johnson paid nearly $62 million for construction work and more than $25 million for contracted services.

And then there is the money airmen and their families spend off base.

Star Whitmore has operated the Grounds for Expression coffee shop, right outside the base gate, for more than seven years.

"These are people who eat out two or three times a day and who love to spend their money in Goldsboro," she said. "If you drive down Berkeley Boulevard at 6:30 a.m. and look, you'll see green in every restaurant."

In the 20 years she has lived in Goldsboro, Ms. Whitmore has seen a boom in the number and types of restaurants. She worries how a closure or realignment would affect those eateries, including her own.

"I would try to stick it out for a while, but a coffee shop -- I could open one anywhere," she said. "I wouldn't want to leave, but I need to have customers."

The base also drives the real estate market. Nearly 4,800 of the 6,478 airmen stationed at Seymour Johnson in 2004, plus 3,108 dependents, lived off base.

A base closure or realignment could be a boom or a bust for home sales and the rental business.

Concern about the BRAC decision and the looming announcement date are already affecting sales, Realtor Hal Keck said. "Some people are scared. ... Some people have held off committing themselves to buying real estate."

Keck estimated that 30 to 50 percent of Wayne County real estate transactions involve military retirees or transplants.

"(A closure) would bring home sales to a screeching halt," Keck said. "The others would probably put their homes on the market."

And the actual home sale is only the beginning.

Those who provide services to homeowners -- inside and out -- also would suffer.

Contractors, painters, plumbers, carpet layers and heating and air-conditioning technicians would lose work.

"House cleaners, restaurants, grocery stores, clothing stores, it would just ripple out," Keck said.

Wayne County uses Seymour Johnson to sell itself to potential investors, too.

The Wayne County Economic Development Commission has long marketed U.S. Air Force retirees and the spouses of active personnel as a pool of skilled, educated and trainable workers available to new industries.

"Having that pool is probably the one unique thing that separates Wayne County from the competition," commission President Joanna Thompson said. The base has been "the icing on the cake."

"Our labor marketing strategy has been, for a long time, Seymour Johnson. If that was gone, what do we do?" she said. "It'd make my job harder."

But it is not all about the money or the jobs.

Airmen also contribute in other ways. They are among the first to volunteer, whether it's building homes for poor families, delivering meals to the homebound or cheering disabled children at the Special Olympics. It's estimated the base personnel donate 90,000 hours a year of their free time.

Even after retirement, they remain a part of the community. Many start second careers here. Three of the Wayne County commissioners served in the Air Force, as did Goldsboro Mayor Al King, Walnut Creek Mayor Ken Ritt and state Rep. Louis Pate.

"Most people get pretty excited about Seymour Johnson, whether you've lived here for 12 years or 120 years," Ms. Thompson said. "It's kind of like, what if Disney World closed in Orlando? It's such an integral part of the community.

"It would be almost like having your heart ripped out of your body. It's kind of what pumps everything along. I think it would be very sad. I think it would be a sad community."