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Pentagon cuts put a squeeze on Army towns

By RICK MONTGOMERY | The Kansas City Star (Tribune News Service) | Published: April 11, 2016

A fast-shrinking U.S. Army squeezes military towns and the people in them in unforeseeable ways.

The community of Junction City, Kan. sits at the edge of Fort Riley, which is minus about 2,100 soldiers and civilian staffers after cuts in recent years. Real estate agents wonder who will buy hundreds of neighborhood lots and homes built at the peak of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the same time, a few newly discharged soldiers have stepped into American Legion Post 45 in Junction City to reveal they no longer have places to live.

“We fix them up for a while with hotel rooms,” typically bargain motels near the Interstate 70 exits, said post commander Danny Loehr.

Fort Riley trains fighting forces for war, and as the United States draws down its involvement in wars, Washington knows that the swiftest, easiest way to curb federal spending is to cut the number of ground troops who go into combat.

That reality and the rigors of war have always meant a topsy-turvy economy in Junction City, 120 miles west of Kansas City.

Regional planners this year hope to get to the bottom of how recent force reductions at Fort Riley — including 615 cuts ordered last July — have affected local trade, government services and population patterns outside the base.

From that information, the Flint Hills Regional Council hopes to prepare the community for future cuts: Suppose Fort Riley loses 1,000 more personnel by 2018 or 2,000 more by 2020?

“What might be the ripple effects on housing, education, health care … on tax revenues?” asked Jennifer Jordan, the council’s planning manager. She and a Colorado-based consultant are coordinating the analysis, which is funded by a $294,000 grant from an arm of the Department of Defense.

Under a Pentagon force-reduction plan unveiled last summer, the Army was by far the hardest hit of the military branches. The number of its soldiers would shrink by 40,000 by 2017, bringing the Army’s active-duty force to 450,000. That’s a 21 percent reduction from the Army’s peak of about 570,000 regular troops in 2012.

Experts say the cuts could be even more severe by fiscal year 2019 — down to 420,000 soldiers — if hard federal budget caps known as sequestration aren’t addressed.

Ripple effect

Reductions already at Fort Riley, which has roughly 16,000 uniformed personnel and 5,700 civilian employees, have reverberated through an eight-county region, according to economic impact studies issued yearly by the fort.

“Total economic impact” fell from $1.92 billion in 2011 to $1.58 billion last year, an 18 percent drop, according to the reports.

Broad impact

The reach of the military economy across Kansas and Missouri might surprise, say officials tapped by governors in both states to protect the region’s interest against defense cuts.

“Between 130,000 and 150,000 people in Kansas right now are employed in military activity,” said John Armbrust, who directs the Kansas Governor’s Military Council. “That’s $5 billion in salaries.”

The Missouri Senate last month confirmed Armbrust’s counterpart, Joe Driskill, as the state’s military advocate.

In his role directing private-public groups promoting the betterment of Fort Leonard Wood and surrounding communities, he has seen that base take two hits since 2014 that claimed more than 1,900 military and civilian positions.

In February, the post in the Missouri Ozarks announced the inactivation of the 92nd Military Police battalion, consisting of more than 700 soldiers. Many will be reassigned to other units or routed to other parts of the globe.

Fort Leonard Wood is among four Army bases that provides basic training of new recruits. Driskill said that as recruiting eases, “it’s unlikely the Army will feel it needs all four” and the Missouri base would have to make its case to remain among those where basic training takes place.

Lose basic training, and lose the ceremony crowds.

As in the Junction City area (and even Kansas City), hotels housing families and military dignitaries traveling to on-post graduations or deployments generate revenues and jobs in the small cities surrounding Fort Leonard Wood.

A 2013 study found that Fort Leonard Wood supports, directly or indirectly, 36,400 jobs, including hundreds of hotel and restaurant workers.

In and around Leavenworth, a bistate economic development group called the 27 Committee reported that the fort had more than $880 million in direct economic impact in 2015.

That included $27 million in travel spending — mostly on airline tickets and lodging near Kansas City International Airport, said Rich Keller, the committee’s vice president.

Keller said Fort Leavenworth doesn’t feel the reduction pressures of other Army installations. Its personnel count of 9,800 mostly consists of instructors at the Command & General Staff College, more than 1,000 visiting students and guards at the fort’s famed prison.

“Cutting the fighting forces is where you get big numbers” and quick savings, Keller said. The implication, though, is that those are forces that can’t be sent off in case of war.

Losses so far at Fort Riley could be much worse.

At Fort Benning, Ga., the Army last year ordered 3,402 positions to be eliminated by 2017, a 29 percent reduction from the fort’s 2015 force levels. Fort Hood, Texas, would lose 3,350 soldiers, a 9 percent cut.

The reduction of 615 at Fort Riley, already completed, represents 4 percent of troops.

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©2016 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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