Soldiers scale walls and crawl through cold, damp grass while taking on simulated gunfire in this Basic Training course at Fort Leonard Wood. They’re among the roughly 90,000 yearly trainees at the base, located in the central Missouri Ozarks.
This 62,000 acre campus shares many characteristics with its military installation counterparts. But at a time when the entire U.S. Army is set to significantly reduce its force, no base in the country is safe from cuts. So it’s vital for military communities like Waynesville and St. Robert to express why it is unique and how a significant reduction in personnel would impact the region.
“It’s beyond a shadow of a doubt that Fort Leonard Wood is the largest economic driver in this area. And I’m not sure if there’s anything else similar to it,” Hathaway says.
Brian Hathaway is an Army engineer who’s been stationed at the post nearly two years. He also serves as scout master of the local Boy Scout troop. It’s a community he’s grown fond of, but one he fears will suffer significant setbacks if faced with a major soldier downgrade.
“The folks that I know; they love the area, they don’t wanna move. It would be very hard to get your value back out of your house especially since there aren’t people moving back into the area. And so yes it’d be a challenge to leave, and those folks don’t wanna leave.”
Triggered by the 2011 Budget Control Act, the Army is reducing its force from a war-time high of 570,000 to 490,000 by the end of the fiscal year. And as fiscal considerations continue to change, aided in part by sequestration-level cuts, the Army says that the future end-strength could be reduced to as low as 420,000 by 2020. As a result, last summer it released the Supplemental Programmatic Environmental Assessment (SPEA), an assessment of possible direct, indirect, and cumulative environmental and socioeconomic impacts of the greatest Army employee reductions being considered at each installation.
For Fort Wood, as it’s called, the number is 5,400; a worst case scenario for the amount of military and civilian cuts that could be implemented. (SPEA Page 515)
According to a 2013 study of Missouri’s military infrastructure, the base is credited with supporting 36,400 direct and indirect jobs in the state, it is Missouri’s fifth largest employer, and has a total economic output of $2.1 billion.
The consensus among local officials is that the worst case scenario will not come to fruition, but they still have reason for concern.
Rick Morris is chairman of the Committee of Fifty, which supports and highlights the importance of Fort Leonard Wood. He’s also director of operations for Fort Wood Hotels, which owns six such facilities. 80 percent of guests to those hotels have some connection to the military, he says, coming for traditional visits and graduations. All told, there are close to 3,300 hotel rooms serving the region and an estimated 400 employees.
“When you downsize an Army you’re gonna have less soldiers coming to Basic Training, which means less moms and dads coming to stay in the hotels, which means people fueling up in vehicles, less people eating in restaurants; so that’s the spiral effect,” said Morris. “And obviously if you’re not serving that many guests per year you don’t need that many employees.”
That spiral effect would eventually hurt people like Twyla Cordry, owner of three small businesses in the area.
“My payroll for the people I employ is over a couple hundred thousand dollars. And I’m just one small employer.”
Cordry ‘s wine bar and gift shop are located in a rejuvenated downtown Waynesville in which millions have been invested over the past few years.
Luge Hardman is the mayor of Waynesville. It’s a town of 5,800 people which she describes as rural with an urban diversity.
“I’ve lived here since the 1970s. This is the fourth downsize that I’ve lived through… Obviously it’s going to hurt, it’s gonna hurt some of our businesses, whatever happens. I just think we’re a very flexible community and we’re going to deal with it.”
Part of that flexibility is looking ahead, rather than holding off on economic initiatives as the effects of the cuts set in. Hardman and Cordry say the key is establishing more secondary employment.
“Two years ago we purchased 70 acres across the interstate and we are building an industrial park. And in fact this year we should be putting a speculative building there, and already have a couple of bites on some companies going there that would involve employment,” Hardman said.
Cordry added, “And while some communities would say ‘Hey the post is gonna downsize let’s put that [industrial park] on hold,’ we’ve taken the other stance. The post may downsize, let’s get going and get some employment in this area.”
But it’s more than just creating new employment opportunities or managing changes in the workforce, it’s identifying ways to uphold a strong educational environment for the community’s youth. That’s according to Dr. Brian Henry, superintendent of the Waynesville School District, where 74 percent of students are from military families.
“If all of the reductions would take place it would have a significant impact on our district. It could be anywhere from 2,000 [to] 2,800 students that could be impacted in something like that,” Henry said.
He’s already anticipating 100 fewer students in the fall mostly because of the downsizing of the 4th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade (MEB). That announcement came last year and was originally believed to impact some 1,300 positions on post.
The Waynesville School District is the second largest employer in Pulaski County, and an estimated 10 percent of its workforce is comprised of veterans, military spouses or active duty. And its instructors are good at what they do. Of all districts supporting the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) installations, Waynesville is first in graduation rate and second in composite ACT score.
Henry believes the community has put its best foot forward in showcasing the region and the benefits of Fort Wood. He’s also chairman of the Sustainable Ozarks Partnership (SOP), a nonprofit organization that focuses on sustainable development and redevelopment at Fort Wood.
SOP offered scores of data showcasing the impact of the post during an Army listening session earlier this month. More than 2,100 people attended, including several elected officials in the Missouri state and federal government. Officials touted the post’s low training costs, expandability, joint-use airport, and lack of encroachment issues on the surrounding community.
One thing is clear; the Army will call for cuts of some size. That announcement is expected in June. But how many that includes of Fort Leonard Wood, and whether it will be proportionate to its surrounding community and to that of other military installations is not certain. But people like Rick Morris feel confident the Army will “do the right thing” by making a fair decision and keeping in mind the future potential of the military post.
“We’ve got the capacity and the infrastructure in our community, and we’re still protecting the border so we’re not encroaching on Fort Leonard Wood. I’m optimistic enough to know that that tap on the shoulder could come,” said Morris.
Back on post, soldiers scale another wall and strap on a gas mask in route to evacuating a casualty as part of their training exercise. Before long, this company of soldiers will finish Basic Training.
Fort Leonard Wood typically has a few graduations or family days each week, meaning there’s a steady flow of visitors to town, as well as guests to hotels, and patrons to businesses. Factor in the more than 14,000 military and civilian employees on post every day, plus family members and retirees that are supported by Fort Wood, and there are several economic factors at play. It’s why local officials are hoping to avoid a worst case scenario in force reduction, manage whatever cuts it is dealt, and continue its push to create future job opportunities.
Follow Scott Harvey on Twitter: @scottksmu