Business Columns & Blogs

Military offers chance for growth

The concept of a military installation being as much a driver of the local economy as it is a component of national defense isn’t a new one. In fact it occurred to the people of Pierce County in 1917, when they voted for a bond issue to buy land to be donated to the federal government for what was to become Camp Lewis.

Camp Lewis became Fort Lewis, Tacoma Field eventually became McChord Air Force Base, and as of last week Fort Lewis and McChord officially became Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

It’s not that people forgot over the years the importance of military bases as anchors for the regional economy. It’s a point driven home every time the Base Realignment and Closure procedure gets revved up and generates noise about shutting down a military installation or two.

Beyond that, though, people tend not to think of the bases as economic drivers beyond the thousands of people stationed at or passing through those installations, and the economic activity generated by having those people here.

But the idea is getting increased attention these days as Tacoma, Pierce County and the entire Puget Sound region attempt to figure out just what might be out there to at least maintain the semblance of a healthy economy.

One organization that has taken note of the extensive military presence in the region (the Tacoma bases, Whidbey Island, Bremerton, Bangor and Keyport, to highlight a few) is the Prosperity Partnership, the four-county economic development group that has designated the military as one of the clusters on which it is concentrating its efforts (the others are aerospace, clean technology, information technology, life sciences, logistics and international trade and tourism).

A strategy report issued last year by the partnership and the Puget Sound Regional Council discussed multiple initiatives the region should undertake to support the military installations and employment and educational opportunities for the families of those stationed there as well as veterans.

Intriguingly, it also lists as part of its plan the use of “business attraction, retention, and expansion strategies to expand the region’s defense contracting industry.”

Washington, the report notes, “is ranked seventh in the nation in terms of the number of military personnel, (but) in terms of overall Department of Defense procurement, the state ranked 19th, indicating that the our state’s firms are not capturing a proportionate share of national defense contracts.”

One problem the state faces is that, with an obvious exception like Boeing, most of the big defense contractors are based elsewhere. When defense contractors have local offices, “they tend to be field offices instead of (a) substantial presence,” says Gary Brackett, business and trade development manager for the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce, who served on the panel that helped draft the Prosperity Partnership’s report. Northrop Grumman’s offices in Lakewood, he adds, are “an example of what we’d like to see.”

The report advocates such measures as broadening the state’s tax incentives for aerospace companies to include certain defense contracting activities, and getting Washington businesses more interested in defense contracting by helping them navigate the complex procurement process.

There’s another avenue to bolstering the military’s contribution to the region’s economy that isn’t often explored but which is well worth looking at as a long-term strategy.

The Washington, D.C., area is replete with firms started by former military personnel consulting on everything from global security to landing contracts. That’s not surprising. The other Washington is where the military’s decision-making headquarters are based, and it’s where decisions about how money is spent are made. There’s a lot of expertise in the form of retired military personnel there.

But there’s a lot out here too, which is something economic development efforts can capitalize on. Spend enough time interviewing people and hearing their stories about how they landed in the Northwest, and a common thread emerges: “I was stationed at (insert name of regional military installation here) and liked it, so when I got out I stayed here.”

Those veterans dispersed to every known profession and occupation and no doubt made good use of their experience and training in the military for their work in government, in the private sector, education, nonprofits, you name it.

An economic development strategy seeking to leverage the military’s regional presence will figure out ways to channel that experience and expertise into entrepreneurial ventures focused on the military.

Why shouldn’t people who consult on security matters involving the Pacific Rim be located somewhere near the Pacific? Why not marry the knowledge of those who have been in the military with the wealth of expertise on tap in one of the nation’s strongest technology centers to produce products and services the military wants and can use?

No doubt some of that has occurred already, on a piecemeal basis. But if the region is going to pick industries on which to place its economic-development bets, why not make a concerted effort in one in which the region already has a significant base and a huge head start – a 93-year head start.

Bill Virgin’s column on business and economics appears Sunday in The News Tribune. He is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at