WRIGHTSTOWN, N.J. — For Tom Harper and other town business leaders, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst is absolutely crucial. It's the difference between making a profit and closing.
Service members and civilian workers regularly pull up to the pumps at Harper's gas station, and they have their cars repaired there. They patronize restaurants, dry cleaners, and retail stores.
But the town is only a microcosm of the state, where the base is the second-largest employer after New Jersey government, officials said.
The sprawling 60-square-mile installation in Burlington and Ocean Counties provides 40,000 military and civilian jobs and contributes $7 billion each year to the state economy, according to a Rutgers University study. It also supports 65,000 off-base jobs.
So any mention of the acronym BRAC - for base realignment and closure - sends shivers up the spines of business owners and elected state and federal officials.
Last month, they formed the New Jersey Military Installation Growth and Development Task Force - chaired by Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno - to draft strategies for inoculating the Joint Base and other military installations from BRAC, the federal process used to cut Defense Department inefficiencies.
"If there's another BRAC, we want to make sure the Joint Base stays," said Harper, who operates a station near a gate at the fort and who served 14 years as mayor of Wrightstown. "If there's no base, there's no town.
"It's here because the base is here," he said. "The businesses of this town will rise and fall based on what's happening with the base."
The Joint Base has survived five BRAC rounds - in 1989, 1991, 1993, 1995, and 2005 - that resulted in the closing of more than 350 installations. The Defense Department has asked Congress to approve the formation of a BRAC commission in 2017.
"It is hard to overstate the importance of this issue to New Jersey's future prosperity and overall quality of life," Guadagno said. "Enhancing the strength and sustainability of our military installations is not only a matter of protecting tens of thousands of jobs and billions in economic activity, but preserving a tremendous source of statewide pride, as well.
"When the work of the task force is complete, I am confident that it will offer a plan that will make New Jersey's military bases even stronger engines of economic growth and better positioned to meet the unique needs of a 21st-century United States military," she said.
Guadagno and other task force members toured the Joint Base last month and will visit the state's other bases: the 177th Fighter Wing at Atlantic City International Airport in Egg Harbor Township, the Coast Guard Station at Cape May, Picatinny Arsenal in Morris County, and the Earle Naval Weapons Station at Colts Neck, Monmouth County.
"We're going to learn of the value of the bases themselves, as well as their value to the Defense Department and the surrounding communities," Guadagno said. "We'll also go outside the bases to talk about their impact on businesses."
Guadagno said she wanted to find out what officials at other out-of-state bases were doing to make their installations indispensable to the Defense Department.
"We want our bases to remain strong," she said. "We're looking toward 2017 and will try to do a little reverse mission creep, fighting to have other missions brought here.
"We want to align our interests with the Department of Defense going forward," she said. The Joint Base "has unique aspects to it. We want to make it hard for downsizing and focus on the positive."
The other members of Guadagno's task force are Brig. Gen. Michael L. Cunniff, adjutant general for the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs; former U.S. Rep. Jim Saxton; Michele Brown, chief executive officer of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority; Tracye McDaniel, president and CEO of Choose New Jersey; and Paul Boudreau, president of the Morris County Chamber of Commerce.
"The bases all across the country face a triple threat," Saxton said. "One of them is BRAC.
"In decades past, the military had seen fit until the 1980s to maintain a base structure from World War I and II, and, in 1987, a general from the Pentagon came to see me as a congressman and said, 'We have to find a way of closing bases,' " he said. "He said, 'We have a shrinking military structure and tried to close bases but have closed none.' "
The military structure is again shrinking, Saxton said, "and once again we find ourselves with base structures we don't need. There's a good chance we could have a 2017 BRAC."
The second threat, Saxton said, is budgetary. "We spend far less than we did 10 years ago," he said. "After World War I, we built down, and after World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the first Gulf War," there were more reductions.
"Now, we are looking at another build-down," he said. "Our country is spending less money today for bases whether there is a BRAC or not."
The third threat to the nation's bases is "mission migration," he said.
"Part of Joint Base is the airlift mission," Saxton said. "There are airlift missions at other bases.
"The mission could migrate to another base or another base's mission could migrate to our base. Either way," he said.
State lawmakers also hope to head off threats to the military installations. This month, the Assembly and Senate Military and Veterans' Affairs Committees passed bipartisan resolutions calling on Congress to exclude the Joint Base and Picatinny Arsenal from future defense cuts or base closures. It will be considered by the full Assembly.
One of the keys to retaining bases is the surrounding community, said Saxton, whose work in Congress was crucial in saving Fort Dix, McGuire Air Force Base, and Lakehurst Naval Air Station from the cutting ax.
"The community has a very large and important role to play, making life good for the Joint Base, creating a military quality of life here" that makes closure less likely, he said. "Now, we have a statewide task force to help out."