Be Aggressive On BRAC

Protecting military jobs in Hampton Roads requires a proactive approach


The huge military footprint in Hampton Roads traditionally makes the community wary of any base relocation or closure efforts. A new report turns prevailing wisdom on its head, arguing that embracing the idea that contraction could represent an opportunity for the commonwealth.

We cannot afford to be wrong on this issue, since the region leans heavily on the billions of dollars and thousands of jobs generated annually by the armed forces’ presence. We should accept the reality of a contracting military budget and play our position of potential weakness into one of strength.

A changing approach to defense has substantial implications for Hampton Roads, where a 2013 study found 92,962 active duty personnel earning $8.3 billion in salary and benefits. As we’ve noted before, the region’s share of federal dollars has increased in recent years, making Hampton Roads all the more dependent on a large defense budget.

The total financial impact includes contractor positions and other jobs tied directly to defense. Clearly the federal budget situation threatens the status quo. Virginia’s employment situation would be catastrophic if all defense-related jobs suddenly disappeared.

The president recently proposed a long-term spending plan for the Pentagon that would cull thousands of active duty positions in the coming years. A sustained reduction in defense spending might result in the loss of as many as 100,000 jobs in the commonwealth.

When typically confronted by such threats, Virginia expends its energy fighting action in the commonwealth by the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission. Sometimes our response is successful and other times it is not.

What Virginia needs is a more proactive approach, one capable of positioning the commonwealth for the inevitable.

Former Gov. Bob McDonnell recognized the potential benefit of such an approach. It led to him creating, by executive order, the Virginia Commission on Military Installations and Defense Activities in March 2013. The commission’s report, released last week, made for some surprising reading.

Notably, the commission called on Virginia to encourage the next round of base closures and realignment. By working proactively, it argued, Virginia can help to shape the decisions about the future of commonwealth facilities.

The suggestion represents a notable reversal of generally accepted opinion, but it accentuates Virginia’s position of strength. The facilities here are some of the nation’s most important, and it makes practical sense to use them as anchors for consolidation rather than targets for closure.

Importantly, the report calls on elected officials from the governor to those in cities and counties to play a key role in the effort. It stresses that Virginia must be aggressive to see realignment favor the commonwealth.

Forging relationships between public officials and leaders within the Defense Department and Virginia installations is critical. From members of the U.S. House to lawmakers in Richmond, every Virginia office holder should be active in its support of Pentagon spending here.

Decisions, like those involving transportation priorities or other infrastructure projects, should be made with an eye toward how they may benefit existing military installations. These are community stakeholders and should be welcomed at the table.

We have written repeatedly about the region’s worrisome economic reliance on federal spending. In particular, we fear that defense cuts threaten to inflict tremendous harm here in military-friendly Hampton Roads.

A more diverse regional economy would help mitigate that pain. Area officials and business leaders should continue to pursue that worthy goal.

However, we cannot imagine Hampton Roads without a heavy military presence, nor would we wish to. Having so many active-duty personnel, retirees, veterans and their families here very much defines the character of this community.

Protecting our community depends on protecting defense jobs throughout Hampton Roads. Like a ship turning into an advantageous position, Virginia is slow to pivot so it cannot hesitate to act on these recommendations, which offer the most promising path forward.

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