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Panel hopes funds can help protect depot

January 08, 2004|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

One of the last items added to the 2003-04 Pennsylvania budget was $1.25 million to develop a strategy for protecting the state's 12 military installations when the Base Realignment and Closure Commission meets again in 2005.

One of the last items added to the 2004 Franklin County budget was $25,000 to access $75,000 or more of that state money to protect Letterkenny Army Depot and its 2,000 federal jobs.

The board of county commissioners approved spending the money out of the general fund reserve if needed for a local match.

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Franklin County was hit twice in 1995, when the commission voted to transfer the artillery maintenance mission from Letterkenny to Anniston, Ala., and close Fort Ritchie in Washington County.

Eighteen months ago, U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-9th, joined state and local elected officials, economic development groups, representatives for depot employees and businesses in forming the Opportunity '05 Committee, according to County Commissioner Bob Thomas, a member of the group.

"Because it's BRAC '05, it's easy to say we'll put it off," said L. Michael Ross, president of the Franklin County Area Development Corp. and chairman of Opportunity '05.

The Department of Defense, however, already has requested data from installations to evaluate and use in making recommendations to the commission, he said.

State Sen. Terry Punt, R-Franklin, and State Rep. Jeff Coy, D-Franklin, were instrumental in getting funding through the state Legislature, according to Thomas.

Both have representatives on Opportunity '05, along with Shuster and other federal and state officials whose districts have a stake in the outcome, he said.

Ross said the state's 21-member congressional delegation and Gov. Ed Rendell have to become more involved in defending the state's defense installations.

Since the first round of base closures and realignments in 1988, Ross said only California has seen bigger cuts than Pennsylvania, which has lost 16,000 defense jobs, 20 percent of them at Letterkenny.

"The mother of all BRACs" was how Ross described next year's commission, which is assigned to reduce the number of military installations by 25 percent. If an installation gets on the list for realignment or closure, "it's almost impossible to get off," Ross said.

Conversely, if the depot's efficiency and military value are demonstrated to the Department of Defense, another installation's loss could be Letterkenny's gain. "Some of that work has to go somewhere," Ross said.

Ross said the committee is looking at two initiatives for which the state and local funding could be used, a joint land-use study and an economic impact study.

The land-use study would examine the impact of outside development on the depot's missions, as well as how those missions affect the surrounding community, said Thomas. It could be crucial to determining whether the depot's missions can be expanded in the future, Thomas said.

In November, a Department of Defense official met with the Franklin County Council of Governments to discuss a study, for which the depot was nominated by its commander, Col. William Guinn. Before a study is approved, a local government or authority would have to endorse it and provide a local match, Thomas said.

Ross said the economic impact study will be done by Shippensburg (Pa.) University and take a broad look at Letterkenny's importance to the region beyond its annual payroll of more than $106 million.

"We are probably, at this point, the best organized in the commonwealth," Ross said of the local effort. "As a state, however, we are not even close to being as organized as some states in the South," he said.

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