Experts say Colorado lags other states in efforts to fend off military cuts
By Garrison Wells | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) | Published: March 16, 2014
Two miles of gravel road leading to a gate at Fort Carson, serious car crashes on Colorado 94 and a lack of space at Peterson Air Force Base linger as issues that need resolution as the area looks to diminish looming impacts of Department of Defense cuts.
There's also the problem of a golf course at Peterson that could be shut down. It has become too expensive to water.
And yet these are considered relatively minor issues as Colorado competes with other military-heavy states facing the Base Realignment and Closure process that by 2017 threatens to trim Department of Defense operations - moves that could slam economies.
The Pentagon expects to cut $900 billion from its budget over the next 10 years. That could translate into a reduction of 80,000 soldiers and 25,000 airmen.
Local organizations are trying to rally the troops.
Last week, the Military Affairs Council of the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance and the National Homeland Defense Foundation warned local officials that in the race to keep - or even gain - military operations, Colorado is behind.
"The very best scenario is we would actually see gains in the community with regards to missions and commands," Steve Dant, Military Affairs Council chairman, told the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments board. "The worst case is we would see a base close or other units moved."
Other states, Dant said, are spending millions of dollars in lobbying or putting together big-money lobbying efforts to keep or expand operations.
"In this state, right now, from our perspective, we are behind in that effort," he said. "There's a lot of politics in play, and we need to be a part of that."
Figuring out how to resolve the issues here - Carson's Gate 19, accidents on Colorado 94 near Schriever Air Force Base and Peterson's need for additional land - "would help a lot," Dant said.
Gate 19 needs 2 miles of gravel road to be paved, he said.
According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, there were nine fatal crashes on 94 from 2003 through 2013.
Only one was caused by icy roads; the remainder were driver error.
"The crash frequency along the SH 94 corridor is lower than expected as compared to other two-lane rural flat and rolling highways statewide," CDOT spokesman Bob Wilson said in an email.
"It's performing well in terms of safety."
Peterson's lack of space could prove an obstacle if other operations are eyed to move to Colorado. One rumor has it that the Los Angeles-based Space and Missile Systems Center could move to Colorado.
"If we're going to grow our installations here, the best one that has the potential is probably Peterson, but they've run out of room on that base," Dant said. "The city and county need to be careful about how land or property is zoned around that base so if Peterson seeks more land, we're in a position to perhaps find a way to accommodate them."
Part of the hang-up, said Ed Anderson, a retired lieutenant general and president of the National Homeland Defense Foundation, is that some key players in Colorado feel the state is "BRAC-proof."
"There's a belief out there that Fort Carson is safe, that nobody is going to touch the Air Force Academy and so on," Anderson said.
"That leads to the belief that we are BRAC-proof and we don't need to worry about it. I would submit to you that is very dangerous in a period driven by sequestration and budget cuts. We can't take it for granted."
Colorado, Anderson said, "is not doing enough from the top down. It's more than just the governor's office."
Tim Ford, CEO of the Association of Defense Communities, based in Washington, D.C., said that Colorado "does not have the same organizational structure that many other states have to focus on military issues."
And nobody, he added, is safe.
"You have places around the country like Virginia, which houses some of the most important missions for the Navy and others, and they don't see themselves as bulletproof," he said. "There are some things that won't be touched, but there are a lot of missions across the state of Colorado that could be impacted with all the changes occurring. I don't think any place can say there won't be impacts."
Indeed, Colorado has taken a hit.
Under the Air Force's 2015 budget, Peterson would lose a squadron of active-duty airmen and four C-130 transport planes, which would cut 200 airmen and a third of the planes assigned to the 302nd Airlift Wing.
"That," Anderson said, "was not on anybody's scope."
The state isn't ignoring the issue.
At the General Assembly, legislation is being considered.
And in November, retired Maj. Gen. Jay Lindell was hired by the Governor's Office of Economic Development and International Trade to be the state's "Aerospace and Defense Industry Champion."
"In this role, he is actively working with the communities potentially affected by military reductions, addressing issues and working on strategies to keep these communities sustainable and stable," said Eric Brown, spokesman for Gov. John Hickenlooper.
"We are also actively working with legislative leadership and lawmakers on possible legislation and discussing with them the vital role the military plays in Colorado's economy and the strategic opportunity Colorado offers the U.S. military."
Florida is one of the states held out as an example of being well-prepared for BRAC, experts say.
It's one of 20 states on a list by the Military Affairs Council that have hired outside representation or experts.
In all, 35 states have allocated funds to pay for that representation, the council says.
Florida has the Florida Defense Support Task Force, created in 2011. Defense is the third-largest contributor to the state's economy after tourism and agriculture, according to its website. The site includes a primer on everything military in the state with details such as the state's 20 major military installations and defense business presence that provide a $73 billion annual economic impact and account for more than 758,000 jobs.
The report says that the military spent $31.3 billion across Florida in fiscal 2011 in goods and services, pensions and salaries and markets the state as offering "an array of optimum military training environments, including the Joint Gulf Test Range, the Jacksonville Range Complex, and the Eastern Ranges on the Space Coast."
The group also hands out grants to communities to "strengthen Florida's military bases ahead of any potential U.S. Department of Defense realignment or closure actions."
It's just the type of organization Colorado needs, some officials say.
"There's a role we see where the state brings groups together," Ford said. "It's usually out of the governor's office, because if something happens, people are going to the governor and say: 'Why did this occur?'?"
Another organization keyed toward the military is the Southwest Defense Alliance.
Every southwestern state is represented, except Colorado. Members include Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and Utah.
"The Southwest Defense Alliance is certainly not opposed to Colorado being part of the organization," said Dennis Kenneally a retired major general and executive director of the alliance. "That's their choice."
The alliance has accomplished a lot of what experts say Colorado needs to do, such as an updated economic report on the impact of the military to the state.
The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs is willing to do such a study, Anderson said. It just needs the funding, he said.
The latest report in Colorado was fiscal 2010 and shows an economic impact statewide of $6.5 billion, according to the Military Affairs Council.
In El Paso County, the biggest economic impact comes from Fort Carson, $2.2 billion; followed by Peterson at $1.53 billion; Schriever at $1.2 billion; and the Air Force Academy at nearly $1 billion.
Economic studies, two of which have been done by the southwest alliance, "are important," Kenneally said.
"You can't approach BRAC unless you understand the force, financial and strategic requirements for the military," he said.
"If Colorado, or any other state for that matter, is going to be successful in defending its installations and missions, they need to have a few things in their hip pocket: sound data, a solid coalition of community leaders and elected officials," Kenneally said.
"They need to all be on the same sheet of music and need to cast it not just in economic terms but what's in the best interest of our country's defense."
That's a shortfall El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn is worried about. He is a Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments board member and expressed his concern at the recent board meeting.
"There is a growing level of indifference when it comes to the importance of our mission as a community," he said. "People get so hung up on the number when it comes to cuts. We need to focus more on the mission that we have. There are threats in this world, and the Springs, our region, plays a vital role in that."