The Pentagon is pushing Congress to shut down more military bases. The objective is to save money, just as it was 20 years ago when Fort Ord closed.
Many lawmakers don’t like the idea because it means cutting jobs in their communities. So Congress has fought base closure for more than a decade.
Military communities like Monterey, have used that time to get ready.
Every year the former Fort Ord looks less and less like an Army base. New housing is going up near a shopping center, and demolition of old buildings on the campus of Cal State Monterey Bay is practically a daily occurrence.
“It used to be very almost sad to see these buildings boarded up that had so much history,” says Fred Meurer, a retired Army Colonel and former Monterey City Manager.
Meurer was also part of the team that got Fort Ord off the base closure list in 1988, but they lost in 1991. Fort Ord formally closed in 1994.
“How did we prepare? Could we have done a better job,” says Meurer. He had the chance to find out.
The Monterey Bay Area has been the target of nearly every round of Base Realignment and Closure, BRAC. The most recent was 2005 when the Army’s Defense Language Institute and the Naval Postgraduate School were targets. Both are in Monterey.
That year, Meurer crisscrossed the country to attend every regional BRAC hearing where communities defended themselves against closure.
“Basically I would go and I would listen. How are the other communities presenting? What can I learn? What good ideas can we steal from other folks,” he recalls.
He even booked seat on a flight next to the Chairman of the BRAC Commission. “I think he probably thought I was stalking him,” says Meurer.
It all worked. Both installations were saved. But Meurer says it’s less about last minute hustling and more about being prepared.
“Dealing with Base Closure is not an event. You don’t wake up one morning you’re on the list and then you get to work. Dealing with base closure is doing exactly what the city of Monterey is doing now. It’s just an ongoing effort, part of the DNA of this City,” says Meurer.
Part of the DNA because Monterey City officials say they have a lot to lose. The region has several Department of Defense installations including Camp Roberts and Fort Hunter Ligget in south county.
Collectively it’s a workforce of more than 15,000 and an annual budget of roughly $1.4-billion. Most of those jobs and dollars are in Monterey.
Last year, the city hosted a symposium about its efforts to protect the region from base closure. Consultant John Murphy sat on the panel. The city hired him to analyze the region’s strengths and weaknesses.
“Your argument is value. You are never going to make the Monterey Peninsula inexpensive. It’s not possible,” said John Murphy, Principal at Public Private Solutions Group.
But, he told the crowd, just like Washington D.C. Monterey can make the case for its installations.
“It’s no more possible to make the Washington DC area inexpensive, and yet there are things in DC and they stay there because the value of having them overrides the cost of them being there and you have the exact same circumstances here,” said Murphy.
Monterey Assistant City Manager Hans Uslar says after the 2005 BRAC, the City realized decision makers in DC didn’t understand the military missions that happen here. So they started giving tours to anyone who visits the area, from deputy secretaries to members of Congress.
“We need to use every opportunity to promote this location and to promote what is going on in our military installations. And we have been fairly successful in spreading the word,” says Uslar.
More recently the City started marketing the region as the Language Capital of the World. California has more native speakers of more languages than any other state.
It’s argument is simple: Monterey should be home to institutions like Defense Language Institute.
“It is a huge marketplace to recruit native teaching speakers... I believe we are creating a good basis to not overlook California when it comes to language training and potential base closures,” says Uslar.
Even as Congress is pushing back on base closures, he says the City has to make its case.
“Everyone says BRAC will never happen, yet we’ve had five rounds of BRAC. That’s a phenomenon. So BRAC will be coming and we are preparing for that,” says Uslar.
The latest Pentagon budget calls for a new round of base closures in 2021. It says getting rid of excess infrastructure will save the government $2-billion a year.