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Future of Cumberland Valley military installations discussed at economic panel

MIDDLESEX TOWNSHIP — Cumberland County’s three military installations have a major economic impact on the Cumberland Valley, but are not “too big to fail,” leaders from the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Naval Support Activity in Mechanicsburg, and DLA Distribution Susquehanna in Mechanicsburg said Monday during a discussion at the Army Heritage Education Center.

The posts are thriving and economically efficient, and both AHEC and Naval Support Activity are planning expansions, officials said. However, they warned that future federal downsizing initiatives could affect the region — and they encouraged county residents to spread the word about the facilities’ importance.

Here to stay?

Jonathan Bowser, CEO of the Cumberland Area Economic Development Corp., said the corporation is focused on the military’s presence in the county because of its role in the area’s economic well-being. The corporation hosted the discussion.

“We do spend most of our time in the private sector, but it’s equally important to make sure that we’re retaining our public-sector jobs, as well,” Bowser said.

The panelists — Col. Rick Harney, director of AHEC; Capt. Jeffery Rathbun, commanding officer of Naval Support Activity in Mechanicsburg, and Army Brig. Gen. Richard Dix, commander of DLA Distribution Susquehanna —cited statistics to prove it. DLA Distribution Susquehanna, formerly known as the New Cumberland Supply Depot, spends more than $500 million annually on employees and local contractors, and Naval Support Activity is Cumberland County’s largest employer with about 4,600 local employees, officials said.

The facilities also provide a boon to the hotel industry because of travelers who visit the area. When asked whether their facilities were too big to fail, all three said they weren’t.

Dix said DLA Distribution Susquehanna has a long tradition of success — including a pivotal role in providing supplies to support the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and fighting the Ebola outbreak in western Africa — but must continue to prove to the defense department that it is operating efficiently.

“A lot of it is, ‘What have you done for me lately?’” he said. “We will continue to beat the drum and make sure that we remain relevant.”

Rathbun said he isn’t sure whether what Naval Support Activity does can be replicated elsewhere, but if its closure would ever be contemplated, he believes its best chance of long-term success involves making it as efficient and strong as it can be in the present.

The facilities operate amid rumblings from Washington that there could be another round of Base Realignment and Closure, a process by which the department of defense consolidates its bases.

Bowser said he thinks BRAC and an associated $6 billion in defense cuts are going to occur eventually, and the possibility they could lead to the closure of Cumberland County facilities is “realistic.” However, if Midstate facilities are able to position themselves well, they could actually grow through consolidation when facilities in other places are closed, he said.

“There is going to be some realignment, there are going to be some closures — we just want to make sure it doesn’t happen here,” he said.

Officials said the institutions currently are thriving and in some cases growing. DLA Distribution Susquehanna is planning a new headquarters that will become operational in 2016, while AHEC has secured $2 million to expand its facility, adding another exhibit center and expanding the size of its multipurpose room and cafeteria capabilities, officials said.

The Army War College’s enrollment levels are also on the increase, Harney said.

“(We’re) squeezing water out of a raisin to make things happen,” he said. “We will continue to accomplish our mission … until we’re told otherwise.”

There is a benefit to having three military facilities located in proximity of each other, officials said, and the organizations also have an interconnected relationship with the community, Rathbun said.

Tell the story

“The impact that they would have on the community if they were downsized or had to leave would be devastating,” said Al Bienstock, a Hampden Township commissioner and a member of the Cumberland York Area Local Defense Group. The group — organized in 2014 with help from the Pennsylvania Military Community Protection Commission — is planning a public relations campaign to emphasize the mutual value of the military and the Midstate to each other in advance of any BRAC decisions, he said.

Dix also thinks it is important for Midstate residents to tell the story of the importance of the military presence, both to their neighbors and lawmakers in Washington.

“We want to make sure the folks inside the beltway understand our capabilities and what we bring to the fight,” he said.

Bienstock emphasized that people need to advocate not only for what the military offers the Cumberland Valley but what the Cumberland Valley offers the military, including a well-educated workforce and a “strong work ethic” in the area.

Harney said the area’s assets also include the community interest in AHEC and the Army War College, as evidenced by frequently strong attendance at public events organized by the center.

View the article from the Sentinel here.

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