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Glimmer of hope for Fort Gillem

By Ed Brock

There may be a chance yet that Army Garrison Fort Gillem in Forest Park may stay open.

James Bilbray, a member of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission, paid a visit to the fort on Friday and apparently liked what he saw. He was also intrigued by what he was told.

"We have new numbers that are contradictory to what the Pentagon gave us. That will be looked at," Bilbray said. "Fort Gillem has an excellent chance of getting off the list."

Bilbray said some of the contradictory information dealt with the cost of moving some facilities off the base and the cost of the environmental clean up at the fort if it is closed.

The Department of Defense released its version of the BRAC list on May 13 and Fort Gillem, along with its parent facility Fort McPherson in Atlanta, were included on the list for closure along with two other Georgia military facilities. It is the BRAC Commission's job to review the list and restructure it if necessary before passing a final version of the list to President Bush by Sept. 8.

Once the list goes to the president he can either approve it all together or scrap it completely, but he cannot add or subtract individual bases. The same is true for Congress when Bush passes the list on to it by Sept. 23, after which it has 45 days to vote on the list.

On Wednesday another BRAC commissioner, retired Army Gen. James Hill, visited Fort McPherson to tour the facility and to hear from locals about what would happen if the base closed.

"You need to get a feel for how this affects lives," Hill told reporters after his tour.

But he had little else to say at a press conference after his tour.

"I didn't learn anything that I didn't know going in," said Hill, who had been stationed at the fort for two years in the 1990s.

Bilbray said that during his tour he was assessing the military value of the base and said Fort Gillem is important not only to the military but to other agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He couldn't say exactly what would be involved in the environmental clean up, but he said he thought that the numbers presented by the Defense Department about that clean up were too low.

"If we close Fort Gillem today will we regret it five or 10 years from now," Bilbray said.

He also seemed to indicate that in previous BRAC lists the Defense Department had provided estimated costs that were too low.

"We're not going to let them get away with that with this BRAC," Bilbray said.

Of the more than 800 facilities on the list nationwide, about 90 percent are "not controversial," but major bases like Fort Gillem and Fort McPherson are different.

"These are the kind of situation that warrants the full commission's investigating," Bilbray said.

The BRAC Commission will hold a regional hearing in Atlanta on June 30. It requires the vote of five commissioners to have a facility removed from the list.

U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Georgia, accompanied Bilbray on his tour and said he feels sure they've convinced Bilbray and Hill to vote for keeping the forts.

"We need three more votes to get off the list," Scott said.

Closing the forts would leave Atlanta, an important city with major federal facilities like the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, exposed and lacking military first responders in the event of an attack. He also said "we dare not walk away" from the $240 million in new construction that has been done at the bases.

Fort McPherson and Fort Gillem are home to headquarters for the U.S. Army Forces Command, 3rd U.S. Army and U.S. Army Reserve Command. Scott said Atlanta would be vulnerable to terrorist attacks if the bases were closed.

Fort McPherson is one of the nation's oldest bases, in use since the 1880s. Combined with Fort Gillem, it is Atlanta's seventh largest employer with a civilian and military payroll of 4,141 people.

Losing the forts could drain about $670 million a year from the local economy, Scott said.

"That alone is worth the fight," Scott said.

The Naval Air Station in Marietta and Navy Supply Corps School in Athens are also slated for closing.