Fort McPherson, Gillem set for closure

By Ed Brock

Forest Park Army Navy Store manager Skip Cain reacted with utter disbelief to early news that Army Garrison Fort Gillem was slated for closure.

"If you've seen the money they've dropped out there ... That would be about stupid!" Cain said.

The first toll of the bell rang for Fort Gillem and its parent facility Fort McPherson in Atlanta on Friday with the Department of Defense announcement of its Base Realignment and Closure List. They were two of four Georgia bases recommended for closing, the other two being the Naval Air Station-Atlanta in Marietta and the Naval Supply Corps School in Athens. Gillem has been in place since 1941.

Across the nation 33 major bases have been recommended for closing and 29 others for realignment, a move Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said should save the Defense Department $50 billion over the next 20 years and $5.5 billion a year after that.

The fight continues

The BRAC Committee, chaired by former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi, will now review the DOD list and submit its recommendations to President George Bush by Sept. 8. Bush will then accept or reject the list by Sept. 23, and if he passes it on to Congress it will have 45 days to vote, meaning a final list may not be available until November.

On Friday state and county officials were saying the fight for the forts had just begun.

"This is the first quarter. We're going to have a half time and we're going to have a fourth quarter and we're going to make sure Fort Gillem gets across the goal line," U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson said at a press conference in Forest Park City Hall Friday afternoon.

The state as a whole is a "net gainer" in the BRAC process, Gov. Sonny Perdue said at that press conference. Missions will be added to Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, Army Fort Benning near Columbus, Robins Air Force Base at Warner Robins, the Navy's submarine base at Kings Bay and others.

But he wasn't going to accept any losses, and he made his own football analogy.

"Up until now we've been playing the whole field," Perdue said. "Now that we're in the red zone we're going to play a massive defense."

U.S. Rep. David Scott has been rallying for the forts since taking office and said previously that now is not the time to close any military bases since the nation is at war. And in that war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Army Reserve members are playing a major role.

"Where do they come from? They come through Fort Gillem (for processing)," Scott said.

Scott also said it was good to have this initial list that lets officials know what will stay and what is in jeopardy.

"Now we can focus on saving what we have a prospect of losing," Scott said.

Fred Bryant, deputy director of the Georgia Military Affairs Council, said traditionally if a base is recommended for closing on the initial BRAC List then there is an 85 percent chance it will stay on the list, meaning of course there's a 15 percent chance it can be removed.

"We know we have our work cut out for us but we're up to it," Bryant said.

Now the forts' supporters must review the selection process to see if mistakes were made, if perhaps BRAC criteria were not properly applied in the decision.

U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss said it would be up to the legislators to argue for the military importance of the bases, but community leaders would have to argue for the impact on the community.

Local impact

Hearing the news of the base closures was "like taking a blow to the stomach," Forest Park Mayor Chuck Hall said.

Now the question is "Where do we go from here?"

"It's just a process of everybody being committed," Hall said.

Hall was particularly worried about the civilian employees whom he said make up about 60 percent of the workforce at the base and the private contractors who also depend on Fort Gillem for work.

That's not to mention the impact of people simply leaving the area economy as they are reassigned, Hall said.

Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said Fort Gillem was an "economic engine" not only for Clayton County but for surrounding counties like Henry, Fayette and DeKalb.

"It will have a decided impact on the Southern Crescent," Bell said.

Bell and Hall said that if the base remained on the list they would then plan for what would come next, and the city of Forest Park is already planning for that future development.

"But I don't know if we want to talk about it at this time," Bell said. "I think we've got a lot to fight for and a lot to fight with."

Bad for business

Back at Forest Park Army Navy, Cain said he's mostly worried about what will happen to the civilian workers at Fort Gillem. But his business stands to suffer, too.

"We get a fair amount of traffic from the fort," Cain said.

At the Chick-fil-A Dwarf House on Jonesboro Road across from the gate to the fort, a few uniformed soldiers stopped by for lunch as they usually do. Assistant manager Bobby Johnson said losing the base would hurt, but it wouldn't be "a tremendous hit."

"We do have a large order for them that we do when they're shipping troops overseas," Johnson said.

What will be lost

Bryant said they were especially surprised by Fort Gillem's presence on the list.

"We had not really put Gillem in that category until the last couple of days," Bryant said.

Fort McPherson is home to three major headquarters, the U.S. Army Forces Command, 3rd U.S. Army and U.S. Army Reserve Command. Fort Gillem is a satellite of McPherson and it houses the headquarters for the U.S. Army Recruiting Brigade and 1st U.S. Army.

Both forts recently had remodeling work done on their gates and on Fort Gillem a number of new buildings have been opened in the past three years, such as a $5.6 million headquarters for the 52nd Ordnance Disposal Group, and more were planned like the new home for the Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory set to open this summer.

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, McPherson has 40 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.

Gillem is 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 base commander reacts

Army Col. Angela Manos held her own press conference to announce the list and to discuss the BRAC process. She called it "an essential step in the transformation of the Army and other military services, maximizing their capabilities to work together more effectively while providing substantial savings in military spending."

"We'd like to emphasize that the BRAC process has not reached its conclusion," Manos said. "The BRAC Commission based its decisions on military need and value."

If the base is closed, Manos said, it would be a process that could take up to six years.

She said recommendations had been made on where some of the units at the forts would be sent, naming military facilities from North Carolina and South Carolina to Texas that could be the new locations. However, she stressed that "definitive answers will not be available until November."

Manos said the federal government will help ease the transition and the fort was in the process of educating its civilian work force and others affected by the closure, if it occurs, about their options.

"We will take care of our soldiers, civilians, retirees and contractors," Manos said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.