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Fort Bragg-dependent businesses worried about future if C-130s pulled from Pope

Since 1975, Cedar Point Restaurant has served up home cooking where North Bragg Boulevard and North Main Street meet in Spring Lake.

Owner Della Sheets and her family and staff have been feeding an endless stream of soldiers and airmen stationed at nearby Fort Bragg and the adjacent airfield. Co-owner Mike Sheets estimates that 65 to 75 percent of their business is military customers.

The restaurant has weathered good times and bad to become a Spring Lake landmark. Through rounds of troop deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, through across-the-board sequestration cuts and through the 16-day partial government shutdown in October, the restaurant has carried on.

But the Sheets family and other business owners in the area are now facing another threat, this time from President Obama's budget proposal. The budget plan calls for the retirement of Pope Field's fleet of aging C-130Hs.

On Fort Bragg, a dozen C-130H planes constitute the entire 440th Airlift Wing inventory. As a result of this decision, Fort Bragg could lose more than 1,100 full-time and part-time jobs.

"Any time any of the troops leave, it hurts all the businesses. Not just us," Mike Sheets said Wednesday afternoon. "This is a military town. They do this, and they don't think about what it does to our economy."

Scott Dorney, executive director of the N.C. Military Business Center, said his business development organization is concerned about any force structure reduction, large or small, at any of the state's military installations.

"There's the military impact from those airmen if they're taken out of our economy. They won't be here to eat in our restaurants or stay in our hotels," he said. "From an economic development perspective, the bases are huge entities for economic development contracts. It makes us nervous (regarding) the impact on any future contracts."

Martin Mancuso manages Guns Plus in Spring Lake, which operates near the flight line off Pope. He agreed with Sheets, saying any loss of jobs would have an effect on his business.

"Any loss of jobs affects the local economy. I don't think the local economy is of the president's concern," Mancuso said.

Lynn Allen, owner of Bragg Auto & Muffler Service, said last year's furloughs for federal government employees on Fort Bragg affected his profits for a time. He relies heavily on military-related customers.

"I hate to see anybody lose in this economy," he said. "Our great president and the government has tightened us up. They've put us in a bad spot. The last two years have been tough, just in general. The economy has been terrible."

Should the budget pass as is, Allen said, "everybody will lose a little bit."

Military customers make up roughly 40 to 50 percent of the business at the Hendrick Chrysler Jeep dealership on McPherson Church Road. General manager Dan Dederick said a potential loss of 1,100 jobs would be small considering Cumberland County's overall population.

"It's a factor," he said, "but I don't think it's big enough for people to start making decisions about reducing advertising, workforce and things like that. I would hate to see anyone leave with those numbers, but it's like a battalion going overseas for 12 months."

The 440th Airlift Wing has an estimated economic impact of $77.8 million.

"Which would be a huge loss for this area," said Fayetteville Mayor Nat Robertson. "The total economic impact of that thing could be huge for us."

Spring Lake Mayor Chris Rey said the threat of losing a chunk of the installation's military personnel ties into conversations town officials have had with the various chambers of commerce.

"The community is tied directly to our military engine," Rey said. "We need to continue to diversify our job opportunities in the area so we're not solely dependent on the military. We have to do a better job. We have to work harder in identifying businesses to attract them to the region."

On Wednesday morning, Fayetteville Regional Chamber President Doug Peters was on a conference call with other members of the N.C. steering committee of the grassroots Campaign to Fix the Debt. The discussion, he said, centered on the budget proposal.

"We know that the debt is unsustainable," he said. "But when you are working to reduce the debt, keep in mind that the reductions in the community would be detrimental in the long run."

Cumberland and surrounding counties rely heavily on the defense industry to sustain their economy. Peters pointed out that about 37percent of the local gross domestic product is generated through defense spending or its ancillary benefits.

"Absolutely," Peters said, when asked if the Pope proposal scares him. "I tell you, I lose a lot of sleep worrying about this economy. But worrying doesn't make things better. It's action that makes them better. We have a very active government affairs committee here."

The Army, he said, is focusing "its growth on special operations and what we have out there. I don't believe you'll see a local economy meltdown. I think our economy is in position to absorb it. That doesn't mean we're willing to accept it."

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