Forts Gillem, McPherson remain on military hit list

By Ed Brock

The fate of Army Garrison Forts McPherson and Gillem is all but sealed.

They will be closed, barring a last-minute miracle.

During its first day of final deliberations the Base Realignment and Closure Commission voted on Wednesday to keep both forts scheduled for closure. However, remnants of Fort Gillem, which is in Forest Park, will be left to operate in a "contiguous enclave."

"It's relatively sparse on what's going to be saved," said Tom Salter, head of the Save Forts McPherson/Gillem Foundation.

The BRAC Commission is expected to finalize its decisions this weekend and by Sept. 8 it will send its final report to President Bush. Bush will then send the whole list on to Congress or reject the entire list but can make no individual changes. The same applies to Congress when it gets the list.

Both forts, along with the Naval Air Station-Atlanta in Marietta, and the small Navy supply school in Athens, were included on the original list that the Department of Defense released on May 13. Since that time Salter and others have been fighting to convince the commission to take the forts off the list.

Salter said he's not comfortable with the military's figures on the savings they will gain from closing the forts and moving the major commands that had been posted at the base will break their "synergy." It will also deprive them of the infrastructure they enjoy in the Atlanta area, such as Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, affordable housing, a good interstate highway system and a skilled civilian work force.

"I think it's penny wise and pound foolish," Salter said.

One commissioner, James Bilbray, voted to keep Fort Gillem open. Bilbray visited the fort during the commission's consideration of the list.

"Because of all the other federal units that are there, I think they do a good job," Bilbray said.

The parts of Fort Gillem that will be contained in the "contiguous enclave" would be the 81st Regional Readiness Command and the Army's Criminal Investigation Divisions Forensics Laboratory. The latter is still under construction.

U.S. Rep. David Scott said he wasn't satisfied by the enclave concept.

"It keeps the base as a base, but not a base," Scott said.

U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said he was disappointed with the panel's decisions to close the bases.

"Through numerous meetings, visits, phone calls and letters, members of Georgia's congressional delegation and Governor Sonny Perdue made a strong and forceful case to the commission to keep Fort Gillem. Unfortunately, despite the data being on our side they maintained the decision to close the base," Chambliss said in a statement released soon after the commission's vote.

The governor echoed the sentiment.

"We made every effort to demonstrate the critical role that Fort Gillem and Fort McPherson play in the defense of our nation and the economic reasons that they should remain open," Perdue said. "The Pentagon and the BRAC Commissioners have decided differently and we are deeply disappointed by their decision."

Scott said he was extremely disappointed by the commission's decision to close the bases but he planned to continue the fight.

"I will continue to build the case with the president," Scott said.

However, Clayton County Director of Economic Development Emory Brock said Wednesday's decision is unlikely to change.

"They're going to close some bases and those (two forts) are relatively easy to close," Brock said.

Perdue also said that the state will begin work immediately on redevelopment plans for the base properties, and Brock said there are plenty of options for the area around the forts.

Fort McPherson, for example, contains very attractive old buildings and houses.

"If they can develop that as a community in the same fashion it would be amazing," Brock said.

And Gillem, with its railroad infrastructure and proximity to Interstate 675, is perfect for industrial development, Brock said. Although the Army is still cleaning up toxic waste from the fort's days as an airfield and storage area during World War II, Brock said dealing with that may be simpler than it appears.

"It might be that it can be encapsulated with parking lots," Brock said.

Brock said another question is when the bases will actually close and that time could be up to five years.

Forest Park may also find opportunity in the closing of Fort Gillem, said the city's Mayor Chuck Hall.

"We've got to take (the commission's decision) as a dark cloud for now but there's a silver lining for tomorrow," Hall said.

Officials at the fort had no comment on Wednesday's decision, installation spokesman Ron Morton said, except to say that the commission made its decision and the president will make his.

"It's an ongoing process," Morton said.

Of the state's bases approved for closure, Fort McPherson is the largest with 4,141 jobs, making it Atlanta's seventh-largest employer.

McPherson is one of the nation's oldest bases. First established in 1886, it became a permanent Army installation in 1889. Known for its on-base golf course and sprawling campus, McPherson has 40 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. During his Army career, former Secretary of State Colin Powell was stationed at Fort McPherson when he was commander in chief of forces command.

Fort Gillem, a satellite base of Fort McPherson, is neighboring Clayton County's third largest employer. Together McPherson and Gillem have military personnel numbering 2,771 and a civilian work force of 2,451 – for a total annual payroll of $512 million.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.