Effort to save forts raises $50,000

By Billy Corriher

Only months into the effort to keep local military bases operational, the Save Forts McPherson/Gillem Foundation has raised more than $50,000 with help from local governments, businesses, individuals and a state grant.

Grant Wainscott, who is coordinating the effort to save the forts through the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce, said the community has mobilized to help the foundation because of all the forts bring to the metro-Atlanta area.

"We set an initial fundraising goal of $120,000 by the end of this year? and we are nearly halfway to reaching that goal in only the first few months," Wainscott said.

The bases, especially Fort Gillem in Forest Park, are an essential part of the local economy, Wainscott said. The bases employ 11,000 people, and the foundation estimates that the forts pump $671 million into the region's economy every year.

But after the federal Base Realignment and Closure list is released next year, the forts and all they contribute to the metro-Atlanta area could be gone.

As part of the effort to convince the Department of Defense to keep the forts open, the foundation is studying the different ways that Forts McPherson and Gillem are essential to national security.

"It's very important that we show the economic impact and the multiplicity of uses for these forts," said U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Atlanta. "It's important to note that Fort Gillem plays a very important role in processing our National Guard soldiers."

Fort Gillem is also home to the Army's Criminal Investigation Forensics Lab, the only crime lab for the Department of Defense.

Pete Meadows, chairman of the chamber of commerce board of directors, presented a check Monday morning for $10,000 from his employer, Bellsouth, to help save the forts.

Meadows said that if the bases were closed, it would have a "ripple effect" on the local economy.

"We truly believe in what those bases mean for the community," he said. "You can't always put a number on those closings."

The Clayton County Chamber of Commerce was also presented with a $13,500 matching state grant through the Georgia Military Affairs Coordinating Committee.

Fred Bryant, deputy executive director of GMACC, said the efforts of the community to save the forts can make a difference.

"The efforts that we make now in our communities are what will matter in the Pentagon in the future," he said. "Because once it gets to the BRAC list in 2005, it's a done deal."

Just in case the forts don't make it past this round of closures, Bryant said the state is working on a plan to help communities cope with losing bases.

"We are having a series of scenarios on what communities would do," he said. "We would be irresponsible if we did not think about what to do."

Forts Gillem and McPherson have survived previous rounds of base closures, but the Pentagon is expected to cut at least 25 percent of the military's infrastructure in the next round.

Scott, who serves on the Democratic Group on National Security, said he has spoken to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about the Pentagon's desire to close bases.

"There's quite a debate going on right now," he said. "But I'm very upbeat about not only keeping Fort McPherson and Fort Gillem open, but moving a plan forward to make them bigger players."

With the money received so far, the foundation also plans to study ways the two forts can be expanded and better utilized by the military.

The foundation also received $5,000 from the city of Morrow, $3,000 from Forest Park and $1,000 from Lovejoy. The Clayton County Board of Commissioners donated $3,500 to the foundation.