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Saving Letterkenny

Pa. governor pledges to fight for depot's jobs

Pa. governor pledges to fight for depot's jobs

March 09, 2004|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

When Deb Witherspoon first came to Letterkenny Army Depot in 1980, more than 6,000 people worked at the installation. The number of employees is now at about 2,000.

Over the years, Witherspoon, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees Local 1442, has seen the Base Realignment and Closure Commission meet four times, the last in 1995. While not all of the job losses at the depot have come through cuts by the BRAC Commission, "We've lost a lot throughout the processes," she said.

With the BRAC Commission scheduled to meet again in 2005, depot supporters are preparing a defense against possible downsizing or closure. The difference this time is the level of support they have enlisted.

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Gov. Ed Rendell toured the depot Monday and pledged his support in the effort to keep Letterkenny and a dozen other military facilities safe from downsizing or closure next year.

"A facility like this isn't buildings. It isn't even the land. It's the people that work here," Rendell told depot employees in Building 350, where Humvees are retrofitted for use by Army Special Forces and Rangers, Navy SEAL teams, the Air Force and regular units. "You've given us an easy product to sell, thanks to your work," he said.

Rendell, Pennsylvania's two U.S. Senators and its 19-member congressional delegation are to meet Thursday in Washington, D.C., to map out a statewide strategy for preserving and, supporters hope, expanding the missions at Letterkenny and other installations in the state.

Letterkenny lost approximately 1,000 jobs when the BRAC Commission voted to transfer the depot's artillery maintenance mission to Anniston, Ala., in 1995. State Sen. Terry Punt, R-Franklin, said lessons were learned from the experience.

"It was all individual effort back in the '90s," Punt said. Instead of an every-base-for-itself strategy, the state will try to show how Letterkenny and other bases support each other and give the Defense Department quality, efficiency and capability.

"Our focus has to be we don't lose anything in Pennsylvania," said U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa. "Otherwise, we'll get into a situation where we're squabbling," rather than working together.

Letterkenny supporters two years ago began work on a strategy to protect the depot when they formed Opportunity '05. Last year, Punt and state Rep. Jeff Coy, D-Franklin, helped get $1.25 million in the state budget to fund efforts to save installations.

On Monday, Rendell handed over a check for $150,000, half of which will go to Opportunity '05 to help pay for a joint land-use study, an economic impact study and other efforts to demonstrate the worth of the depot. The other half will be used to upgrade depot employees' skills to work on unmanned aerial reconnaissance vehicles, Rendell said.

The economic impact of Letterkenny is significant, according to depot figures. Its 1,926 civilian employees earn $106 million a year and the depot awards another $40 million in local contracts annually.

The experience of the workers is an area supporters will stress. During the tour, Depot Commander Col. William Guinn told Rendell the average age of its workers is 49.

"We think it takes about 15 years to grow one of these guys," Guinn said of the technicians who service the Patriot air defense missile system. Downsizing or closing the depot, he said, could mean the military will lose that talent pool.

"I think if we shut down, none of these guys would move" from the area to work at another installation, Guinn said.

Another plus for Letterkenny is that it has room to expand, Guinn said. About 4,500 acres of the 1,773-acre depot are available for expansion, Guinn said.

Guinn told Rendell the depot is efficient and able to refit Humvees and other weapons systems faster and cheaper than the private sector.

Witherspoon, who represents 600 white-collar employees, said 4,000 of the 11,000 defense jobs lost in Pennsylvania to the BRAC process and other defense cuts have been at Letterkenny.

"We thought we had everything going for us in '95," she said. "BRAC was supposed to take the politics out of downsizing."

Rendell said the process has as much to do with politics as with efficiency. He said the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard lost out to a shipyard in Norfolk, Va., in a previous BRAC round, not because it was inefficient, but because Norfolk had a more powerful political patron in Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The effort to preserve Letterkenny, politically at least, is bipartisan with most of the elected officials present Monday being Republicans. The Democratic governor was joined by one U.S. congressman, a state senator, two state representatives, the three Franklin County Commissioners and representatives from both U.S. senators' offices.

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