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Military Cities Strive to Protect Themselves From Possible Future Base Closings

The city of Goldsboro, N.C. is spending $6 million to build a new multi-sport recreation park on land owned by Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
Goldsboro, N.C. Parks and Recreation Dept.
The city of Goldsboro, N.C. is spending $6 million to build a new multi-sport recreation park on land owned by Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

Though the federal government has no current plans to downsize the number of military bases, local communities aren't taking any chances.

It's been more than ten years since the Defense Department completed its last major round of military base closings.

There are no current plans for another round. The U.S. Senate recently backed away from a proposal to consider further closings. But with the Pentagon saying that a fifth of its facilities may be unnecessary, some military communities are taking no chances. They've been working to reduce their vulnerability by throwing a surprising amount of civic muscle into their relationships with the military.

In Goldsboro, N.C., home of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, the city is spending $6 million on multi-sport complex.  It's being built on land that belongs to the base, and it will include eight fields, a playgorund area, and a large parking lot.

"This an amazing facility," said Goldsboro Parks and Recreation Director Scott Barnard. "We're an example, the City of Goldsboro, of a public entity partnering with the Air Force to do something on their property more efficiently than they likely would have done themselves."

The 62 acre complex is so big Barnard thinks it will become central to the identity of the small city. Military and civilian families will use it for all kinds of purposes - military ceremonies, overflow parking for large events on base, and youth soccer tournaments that will generate tourist spending.

It also will serve as hard evidence that the community supports the base.

"When DoD makes decisions about closing a base, decisions are really based on military value," said Tim Ford, the CEO of the Association of Defense Communities, which has more than 300 members.

"Does a soccer field really change that equation in the military value?" Ford asked. "Probably not, but when you start getting further down into a decision-making process, and you put two bases that are both equal in their military value and then you start looking at quality-of-life factor, that's where something like this might play into a decision-making process."

And Goldsboro is relying on more than the sports complex to reduce the threat to the base. Among other things, local leaders lobbied their congressional delegation to get millions of dollars in funding for a new air traffic control tower and medical clinic on the base. The city protected land around bombing ranges that are crucial for pilot training, and it worked to make sure that a new type of aerial refueling aircraft will be stationed there.

Ford says the last base closing round in 2005 made a lot of communities realize that  sort of effort is crucial.

"That recognition is what has changed the dynamic in terms of how communities interact with the military now," he said. "You don't just pop up when something bad is happening, but you stay engaged in the long run."

The long run means ... from now on.

In Goldsboro, city, county, school, and Chamber of Commerce officials have pitched in with the mission. So have local churches, which organize a monthly meal for the families of deployed troops. And there’s a group dedicated to the task, called the Friends of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. It has 150 members, a consultant in Washington, and raises more than $100,000 a year in donations.

"When you go out sell these sponsorships,  you’re really getting people involved who have never been involved before," said retired banker Jimmie Edmundson, the chairman of the Friends of Seymour Johnson. "And they kind of figure out what's going on and how important Seymour is to Wayne County and North Carolina."

Such groups have become an increasingly common part of civic life in base communities since 2005.

"I think our community was very fearful of what might happen," Edmundson said. "I don't hear that today when the word BRAC comes up in this community."

BRAC is the acronym for "Base Realignment and Closure," the federal process that led previous military downsizings.

So, for some small base communities, the fear of BRAC may not be a way of life anymore, but a new kind of proactive civic vigilance is.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

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