Five years ago, El Paso won the military base lottery, avoiding the feared closures and downsizing that other cities across Texas and America now face — and reaping the economic rewards of an estimated 50,000 new residents, along with billions in construction and transportation improvements.
The projected growth spurred by a major expansion of Fort Bliss, the Army’s expanse of more than a million acres near El Paso and in New Mexico, was described as nothing short of “astounding” in a 2008 report published by the state’s Senate Subcommittee on Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC). Construction and building costs will total nearly $4.6 billion, and officials at the El Paso Regional Economic Development Corporation project an even larger yearly benefit.
“We expect an annual economic impact of just over $5 billion,” said Kim Portner, REDCo’s spokeswoman. That includes salaries for more direct and indirect civilian jobs in a city where the annual household income lags behind that of both the state and the country.
Contrast that with the troubling economic landscape left by the closures of bases in Corpus Christi and Texarkana, where the military represented a large sector of the economy and the communities have struggled to replace the jobs. The Navy officially left Naval Station Ingleside last week and returned more than 1,000 acres to the Port of Corpus Christi, but authorities have yet to come up with a redevelopment plan. U.S. Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, lamented the lack of job creation to fill the gap. “We’ve been waiting a long time, and I haven’t seen anything yet,” Ortiz said.
In Texarkana, up to 500 jobs have been or will be lost in a city of approximately 35,000, said Jerry Sparks, director of economic development for the Texarkana Chamber of Commerce. “If you start looking at 500 jobs lost in this community ... you rapidly get into the hundreds of millions of dollars in loss in the community,” he said.
The 2005 BRAC effort sought to align military priorities by reducing the number of overlapping facilities and by reorganizing functions, with an expected cost savings to the military of more than $35 billion by 2025. In all, Texas has actually gained thousands of soldiers so far, relocated from closed bases elsewhere, and stands to benefit more than most states. But the sometimes-massive economic impact of federal decisions on base realignments reveals how communities in Texas can live or die by the military’s presence.
San Antonio also lost a base in the 2005 military realignment — Brooks City-Base, a U.S. Air Force installation — but the city largely has avoided any broad economic losses, said state Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, D-San Antonio. That owes to three factors: the base’s small size, about 3,000 employees; its location in a large city able to absorb the loss; and expansions at two other military bases in San Antonio. “We are faring exceeding well,” Van De Putte said.
The Brooks City-Base cost $325 million to close, with an annual savings of just over $100 million. But Fort Sam Houston, the Army’s command headquarters for many medical services, will grow significantly by providing more than 8,000 direct and indirect jobs when the military transformation is complete. Officials expect a $2.9 billion yearly impact after completion. And just recently, Van De Putte said, the Air Force announced 2,400 new jobs at Lackland Air Force Base in the form of a cyber security and defense command.
Growth and growing pains in El Paso
Fort Bliss has experienced unparalleled growth since the 2005 BRAC report recommended sending 24,000 soldiers to the base. Counting their families, El Paso is expecting to acquire some 50,000 new residents. About half the troops have already relocated to the military’s training, mobilization, and deployment facility, with many of them coming from Germany and other locations abroad, said Mathew McElroy, the city's deputy director of planning for development.
Such population increases, especially over only a few years time, can strain resources. But city and military officials planned for the growth, allocating funding to build new schools and to expand transportation. The Texas Department of Transportation agreed in 2007 to build a $350 million loop, connecting the Army base to the city’s freeway network, and the next year the state invested another $1 billion for more transportation projects in the city. That includes salaries for more direct and indirect civilian jobs in a city where the annual household income lags behind both the state and the country.
The growth has caused a shortage of as many as 8,000 apartments. Kathy Dodson, El Paso’s economic director, said the Department of Defense originally estimated a lower shortage of units but had to revise its forecast as a result of the higher-than-expected number of soldiers moving to El Paso with children. Soldiers are required to live on base, in the barracks, unless they have families. DOD is building some single-family homes on base for officers, “but that leaves the married, younger soldier,” Dodson said.
The monthly allowance given to Fort Bliss soldiers for housing and utilities is higher than the typical cost to rent a place to live in El Paso. That makes it harder for locals to find affordable apartments or house. “Our concern is that it’s going to push El Pasoans out of the market,” Dodson said. The city has responded to the housing shortage by providing some incentives for apartment builders, including green building and tax-incentive programs. Construction on multi-family units has largely yet to occur, but the city plans to assuage the problem by the time all soldiers have arrived in 2013.
Exodus of jobs, wealth
Officials in the cities of Ingleside and Corpus Christi would gladly accept a housing shortage in trade for their shortages of jobs and population. The 2005 BRAC report recommended closing Naval Station Ingleside by relocating a mine warfare command and assembly group to California and a helicopter squadron and a maintenance unit to Virginia. The military projected that shift would cost $177 million total and leave the region to deal with the loss of nearly 2,500 military jobs and more than 4,000 direct and indirect civilian jobs but that it would save the Army about $60 million annually.
Jim Lee, an economics professor at Texas A&M Corpus Christi who helped conduct a report on the economic impact of the BRAC, said that one of the major problems for the region is that most of the lost jobs paid well, and that many highly skilled workers are leaving without new opportunities. “We are not just losing bodies. We are losing skills from the area, and that’s what causes concern,” Lee said. More than $237 million in total salaries will be lost as a result of the base closure.
The port hired the Texas A&M University System last year to find tenants for the land who might provide new economic opportunities. Some potential tenants have submitted proposals, but concrete plans have yet to materialize. “We don’t have a unified vision of what we are going to have after the Navy leaves,” Lee said. The Corpus Christi Caller-Times reported last month that the relationship between the port and Texas A&M System was rocky, as several City Council members argued that the System is receiving far too much money — $350,000 per year — for seemingly little progress.
In Texarkana, officials note similar difficulties after the BRAC decisions closed part of the Red River Army Depot, which has produced thousands of military vehicles like Humvees and Bradleys for combat forces. DOD sent some work that had been done there to a depot in Pennsylvania.
Sparks, from the chamber of commerce, added that it has taken the military far too long to hand over ownership of the vacated land to local authorities. “We had a date. The first date was March 31 [in 2010]. Then there was a date in April. Then there was a date in June, but there is no way of knowing when,” he said.
The community has been through such a redevelopment once before. During base realignments in the 1995 BRAC, approximately 800 acres of Army-owned land in Texarkana were eventually turned over to the city for redevelopment. But it took time. That land has since become a mixed-use facility, with a golf course and housing units, and has produced about 100 jobs.
Dennis Lewis, the business management director for the Depot, said that the closure and realignment has been an emotional event for the community. Even the loss of a few jobs can have a big impact. “This is their home,” he said. “This is their life.”
Editor's note: Two figures related to the closing of Naval Station Ingleside were incorrect in the original version of this story. They have been corrected.