Too late for an about-face in Heidelberg?
March 30, 2009
HEIDELBERG, Germany - Heidelberg’s lord mayor is on a mission.
His quest has taken him from ancient buildings in Baden-Württemberg to the halls of the Pentagon and the U.S. Congress.
The mayor has met with U.S. deputy defense secretaries, Army generals and aides to U.S. Sens. Carl Levin and John McCain to press his case in his almost-perfect English: "What we really can’t understand is moving the oldest historical headquarters in Europe — not back to the U.S. — but just 80 kilometers north. The strategic reasons are not very clear to us," said Eckart Würzner, in an interview in his city hall office.
"It makes absolutely no sense to give up existing structures, especially in Heidelberg."
Würzner’s been working on keeping U.S. Army Europe headquarters in Heidelberg since he was elected in 2007.
The picturesque city with the oldest university in Germany — one of the few cities left intact by Allied bombers in World War II, and not incidentally, the home to U.S. Army headquarters in Europe since 1945 — has grown fond of American soldiers over the past six decades. They are vital, he says, for the Heidelberg economy.
If U.S. Army Europe left town, he says, "It would cut a big hole into our budget for years — we expect 45 million euros a year."
The Army has planned since at least 2004 to move USAREUR headquarters to Wiesbaden as part of consolidating a reduced American military presence in Europe. USAREUR public affairs officials say the plan is unchanged, pointing out in an e-mail that construction funding for new facilities in Wiesbaden has been "requested, programmed, and partially appropriated."
Among the projects expected to begin next month is a $130 million housing area just south of Wiesbaden Army Airfield, with 324 single houses, town houses, and duplexes, sports fields and children’s playgrounds — double the size of that planned originally, according to German newspapers.
Construction on a nearly $60 million command-and-control center is expected to begin this summer, USAREUR public affairs said.
But much has happened since the former USAREUR commander, Gen. B.B. Bell, devised the plan to move the command to Wiesbaden, including the near collapse of the worldwide financial system and a deep recession.
USAREUR has declined to put a price tag on the move, but Würzner says his people have run the numbers. He estimates the cost at $1 billion, plus 15 percent in cost-overruns.
"So the question is," Würzner says, "is 2009 the year for the U.S. to spend $1 billion to move 80 kilometers?
"Use the money for more priority programs in the U.S., and stay where your roots are."
USAREUR officials, who most recently have said Heidelberg would close by 2012 or 2013, declined requests for interviews to respond to Würzner’s comments.
Unofficially though, some say that what will happen with planned transformation moves, in light of expected budgetary constraints, is an open question.
Said one officer, "We’ve been given a squat-and-hold mission."
A story in a Wiesbaden newspaper about the construction projects noted that "The relocation of the headquarters from Heidelberg to Wiesbaden is still only a request from the U.S. Military that the Congress in Washington has yet to approve.
"Nevertheless, the beginning of the construction will launch a process that makes the present plan irreversible."
Once decisions are made — and especially once construction begins, momentum often takes over, Würzner acknowledged.
"Is the train on the track? I think the train is on the track. Has the train already left the station? We say no. And the engine has not enough coal to bring the train to Wiesbaden," he said.
"The situation at the moment is a little bit tricky," Würzner said. "There is a plan by the Pentagon. There have been discussions by Congress to spend money. But there was a big debate and it’s coming up more: Is it really necessary, is it acceptable in the new economic situation?"
The question doesn’t apply only to moving troops from Heidelberg, but from a number of other communities: Mannheim, for one, whose 5th Signal Command is also scheduled to move to Wiesbaden this summer. And last fall, plans were leaked to relocate several headquarters from throughout Germany to Sembach Air Base near Kaiserslautern after next year.
But USAREUR public affairs said recently those plans are still being studied.
In January, Würzner, along with the Baden-Württemberg minister, the Mannheim mayor and several other government representatives, lobbied for Heidelberg in a whirlwind trip — six meetings in a day and a half — to officials in Washington.
"We met very open-minded parties — that was really our feeling," Würzner said. "They were very interested in getting more information."
The mayor has also dis-cussed what he’s willing to offer to keep USAREUR headquarters — including land surrounding Patrick Henry Village — with Gen. Carter Ham, USAREUR commander.
"He is a big friend of Heidelberg," Würzner said. "He could not make me any promises at the moment."