Fort Drum's economic impact drops again, raising community concerns

By GORDON BLOCK | Watertown Daily Times, N.Y. | Published: February 18, 2017

WATERTOWN, N.Y. (Tribune News Service) — The fifth straight year of decreased economic impact and soldier levels at Fort Drum has raised some concern about the potential effects for the local community.

During the five-year streak of reduced value, the post’s economic impact has fallen about 17.8 percent, from about $1.44 billion in 2012 to $1.18 billion in 2016. The post’s soldier levels, a key part of the post’s economic impact, is about the lowest level since 2005.

The post’s soldier cuts comes as the Army drops personnel through its own planning and through federal sequestration budget cuts, from a peak of 570,000 active-duty soldiers to a current target of about 476,000.

F. Anthony Keating, civilian aide to the secretary of the Army, said the reductions like those at Fort Drum can be seen at posts nationwide.

“We are not experiencing anything that other installations of our type and size haven’t experienced the last four or five years,” he said. “I think the key is while it’s something for us to be concerned about and monitoring, we’re not suffering disproportionally.”

The post’s statistics, released this past week, tell the story of how the military’s direct spending plays a key role in the community, primarily in the salaries paid to soldiers based locally.

Among the highlights for the 2016 fiscal year:

  • The post has 15,069 soldiers and 3,786 civilian workers, down from 15,457 soldiers and 3,857 civilian workers the previous year.
  • Total payroll for soldiers and workers on post is $979,566,710, down from $1,004,120,079 the previous year.
  • Federal impact aid to local schools was $31,078,996 in 2016, down 23 percent from the $40,619,075 in the previous year.
  • Fort Drum awarded 81 contracts valued at $14,888,765 to tri-county contractors, more than double the value from the 63 contracts valued at $4,734,099 the year before.

Post officials indicated the post’s economic impact could be stabilizing.

“Based upon what we know today, we anticipate our force structure to remain relatively constant over the next several years,” said Col. Bryan J. Laske, the post’s garrison commander, in a statement released with its report.

During a Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization meeting at the beginning of February, Col. Laske said the post may even see some increased training from outside units which could help boost the post’s economic value.

Some observers had varying outlooks on the drop and its local effects.

David Winters, president of the Watertown Downtown Business Association, said there’s still business opportunities around the city connected to military personnel.

“Walk around any time during the day, and you’re seeing people in uniform walking around,” he said.

Scott A. Gray, chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators, said he’s noticed a “tightening of a budget” in the last few years on a federal level that has affected the post. The activity of soldiers is a key factor in the county’s sales tax revenue, he said.

He said the new administration of Donald J. Trump left him optimistic.

“A new administration is in there, and things may change,” Mr. Gray said.

Watertown city Councilman Cody J. Horbacz said one potential area of impact is in housing, as landlords struggle to compete with newer complexes for the reduced soldier population.

To avoid other areas of the market from being hit, he argued the city and area had to do more to attract new businesses before it was too late.

“We’ve relied so heavily on Fort Drum, and there hasn’t been a contingency plan. Hopefully this is a wake-up call,” Mr. Horbacz said. “The region needs to come together and figure out what to do to cushion the fall.”

Brian E. Ashley, the FDRLO’s executive director, said even with the decline, the post’s impact on the economy was substantial.

“You can’t dismiss a $1.2 billion impact,” he said.

Mr. Ashley added the Trump administration’s interest in increasing soldier levels could positively affect Fort Drum, which he argued could handle additional numbers. Though soldier levels were expected to fall to about 450,000 in the 2018 fiscal year, that number is currently in flux.

“We could see the impacts go the opposite way in the foreseeable future,” he said.

The FDRLO is completing its own study showing the secondary impact of the post and the value not shown in the post’s direct spending calculation.


©2017 Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, N.Y.)
Visit Watertown Daily Times at www.watertowndailytimes.com
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