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South Sound businesses still hoping to stave off cuts at JBLM

The building boom at Joint Base Lewis-McChord over the past decade helped soften the blow of the housing bust and national recession for AHBL engineering.

Now the Washington state engineering firm is worried that a sudden reduction in the Army’s footprint at JBLM will have the opposite effect for it and other businesses, dragging the South Sound economy into a recession.

“If there’s a big reduction in the number of troops, that’s going to have a big ripple effect in the area,” said Melissa English, who works in AHBL’s Tacoma office as its marketing director.

Hers is one of many South Sound businesses preparing a presentation for an Army forum Wednesday where military officials will gather opinions from residents about how a proposal to slash JBLM’s workforce by up to 11,000 more people could impact the region.

The Army has been hosting similar events for several weeks in communities near its other large installations. One at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia last week drew about 300 people who spoke out to protect Army jobs in their community.

It’s not clear how deep the cuts will be at any one installation. The Army is making a plan to slash its force from today’s 510,000 active-duty soldiers to as few as 420,000 by 2020. It can use any combination of cuts among 30 posts.

In the South Sound, local business and civic leaders want to stress that severe cuts to JBLM would be “recession-inducing,” waste $2.7 billion the Army spent improving JBLM since 1999 and undermine the Pentagon’s touted re-emphasis on supporting Pacific Rim allies.

“The impact on local communities is going to be great,” said DuPont City Councilman Mike Courts, a retired Army colonel who worries that significant reductions at JBLM would decimate his city’s real estate market.

A worst-case cut at JBLM could take about $970 million of annual income out of the South Sound, according to an Army study.

“You’re going to drastically reduce the amount of people spending money in the economy,” said George White, spokesman for Goodwill of the Olympics and Rainier Region. The nonprofit is bracing for a downturn in charitable giving if Army cuts lead to people moving away from the South Sound.

The Army started drawing down from its peak strength at JBLM in 2013. Last year, it shed about 5,000 soldiers through the inactivation of a Stryker brigade and two smaller units.

Soon afterward, a quarterly survey conducted by Seattle’s Apartment Insights Washington showed a spike in Lakewood’s apartment vacancy rate. Similar short-term effects of a greater drawdown could be replicated in the communities closest to JBLM, Pacific Lutheran University economics professor Neal Johnson said.

“If the base is impacted, it’s going to hit Lakewood and DuPont and then down to Thurston County,” he said.

The Army has been tallying letters it receives in support of each installation and counting the number of people who attend community forums. Officials expect the Army to base its decisions on military principles, but they think a big showing can help make a case to retain large units here.

“We hope this decision is based on what’s in the best national security interest of America,” said Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia. “But having said that, the Army wants to be where the Army is wanted.”

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