SANFORD, N.C. — A dozen or so mayors from cities surrounding Fort Bragg visited recently to watch training exercises and interact with soldiers and civilian employees at the base. The message from base officials was clear: Bragg is an integral part of this area.
Sanford Mayor Chet Mann was invited but couldn't go. Yet he is, he said, a big fan of having the country's largest Army base in Sanford's backyard.
Mann added that while Lee County hasn't felt the same affects from the base as Harnett, Cumberland and Moore counties, it is aided by its equal distance between Fort Bragg and Raleigh. And, he said, he wants Sanford to capitalize on that to an even greater extent — including possibly expanding the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center and the Sanford-Lee County Regional Jetport.
"The military has told us that they would use us if we had the locations," Mann said. "So I want to expand the civic center to a civic and convention center, where they could host two- or three-day conventions instead of just having the facilities for a single day."
Local cities and counties will benefit less from Fort Bragg, however, if the base loses troops. And as Congress eyes billions of dollars in budget cuts to the military, the massive Fort Bragg could be a prime target.
Such decisions, of course, are made at the federal level. But the presence of Fort Bragg has already won the hearts and minds of local politicians of both parties; now they're trying to convince their national counterparts to spare the base from major cuts other than the already-recommended loss of the 1,500 airmen of the 440th Air Lift Wing.
Local Sen. Ronald Rabin (R-Harnett/Lee) isn't confident that the base will escape unscathed from further cuts, but he's lobbying for it to avoid that fate nonetheless.
"Someone in North Carolina should've known that we're vulnerable," he said of those surprised by proposed cuts. "Because there's no way the Obama administration is going to leave us alone — because we didn't vote for him (in 2012). Because BRAC (Base Closure and Realignment) is a political thing. That's just what it is."
Rabin, a retired Army colonel who bought a home just outside Fort Bragg after a second career in the defense industry, knows better than most how politics can play into decisions about the military. He's also familiar with following a chain of command, so he said he has contacted the state's two U.S. senators, Kay Hagan and Richard Burr, plus this area's U.S. representative, Renee Ellmers.
"Somehow they have to get the message through to folks in Washington," Rabin said. "If I write President (Barack) Obama or (Defense) Secretary (Chuck) Hagel, the chances that it'll get past some third-level clerk are slim to none. So it really has to go through them."
All three serve on committees related to the military, veterans or foreign affairs, and Burr also serves on the powerful Senate Finance Committee. All three have also expressed some opposition to cutting American military spending — which is nearly triple the combined spending of China and Russia, the world's next two biggest spenders.
Another local official, Rep. Robert Reives II (D-Chatham/Lee), also agreed with Rabin's assessment that cuts to Fort Bragg would be bad for this area — but that statewide politicians can do next to nothing to stop those cuts.
He added that if legislators, mayors or anyone else forms together to protest potential cuts, he'd gladly lend his voice and clout. He just isn't aware of any efforts of the sort.
"If there is a group of elected officials doing anything, I'd love to join in," Reives said.
Rabin said there has been some talk among General Assembly members to work on a resolution to send to Washington underlining the importance of the military to North Carolina, where only agriculture is worth more money to the state. But nothing has materialized yet, since the G.A. is out of session as its members work on reelection campaigns.
At an even more local level, Mann, a Democrat, said his immediate goal isn't to fight federal budget cuts so much as it is to improve Sanford. He said he believes that eventually more of those working at the base — and especially the generals, which he said Fort Bragg has more of than anywhere except the Pentagon — could choose Sanford over, for example, Pinehurst.
"You may think that you'd find more of the high-ranking generals and colonels living in Sanford," Mann said. "But right now ... we just don't have the amenities."