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Tribune Chronicle May 07, 2005

SOAR braces for verdict

By Stephen Oravecz

Plans to transform the American military may present the biggest threat to the Youngstown Air Reserve Station as the Pentagon gets ready this week to announce the bases it wants to close or realign, according the leaders of local task force trying to keep the base off the list.

Reid Dulberger, co-chairman of Operation: Save Our Airbase Reservists, said the Total Force Initiative - in which active duty and reserve or air national guard units are brought together - "is the biggest threat we face.''

Military analyst John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, said, "There has been some talk about consolidating Air Guard and Reserve units into active component Air Force bases.''

As a result, Pike and some others military analysts have said any community with a Guard or Reserve base should be concerned about the Base Realignment and Closure list.

At a presentation to Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, at the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport in Vienna on Friday, Dulberger summed up by saying, "The base is here, it's threatened.''

Losing the base would be a major blow to the local economy.

According to Operation SOAR figures, the base, including the Navy and Marine reservists, employs more than 2,000 people, with the majority coming from Trumbull, Mahoning and Mercer counties. It is one of Trumbull County's 10 largest employers.

In addition, the base is responsible for spinning off more than 600 jobs in the community.

The total economic impact is more than $116 million each year.

The base also is crucial to the future of the nearby airport. It provides firefighting protection that would have to be replaced. Also, the law allowing Trumbull and Mahoning counties to spend bed tax revenue to provide stable funding for the airport stipulates that there must be a military base sharing the facility. If the base goes, the law would have to be changed, or the airport funding also could be lost.

It is unclear how much of a threat transformation of the military represents to the base.

Pike said, "I can't tell whether this is just loose talk or whether it actually reflects official thinking.

"I tend to think that such consolidation, if it happens, would occur mainly with facilities that are within and hour or two drive of each other, since if the commute to the weekend drill station becomes too long, the Guard and Reserve folks will tend to quit.''

Transformation of the military is the issue that troubles Dulberger the most, he said, because it is the one issue Operation SOAR can't address "if someone decides to merge up with someone else.''

However, retired Gen. Michael Gjede, the former Youngstown base commander who is executive director of Operation SOAR, said, "It is in our favor that there is no active duty installation in our area.''

Gjede said the Pentagon can decide to move equipment, but most reservists will not move very far "we don't think.''

He also said the issue could work in favor of the Youngstown base. The Pentagon could decide to bring an active unit to the Youngstown base. In Vermont, the Air Force is housing 10 active duty personnel with an Air National Guard unit as part of the Total Force Initiative testing.

"They could bring someone here,'' Gjede said. He said that is why Operation SOAR focused its lobbying efforts on the ability of the Air Force to expand operations at the Youngstown base.

In his presentation to DeWine, Dulberger said the base, which now has 12 C-130 aircraft, could handle 21 without any further investment from the defense department, and it could handle many more with just a modest investment.

DeWine said he helped arrange a meeting earlier this year between Gen. John A Bradley, commander of the Air Force Reserve, and four area congressmen, Tim Ryan, D-Niles, who created Operation SOAR; Ted Strickland, D-Lisbon, Steven C. LaTourette, R-Concord, and Phil English, R-Pa. Their main message was the base's ability to expand, because they did not think that issue would be covered in BRAC evaluation of the base.

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Since it was formed in 2003, Operation SOAR has worked with a budget of approximately $1 million - a combination of state grants and private donations - to address issues that potentially could hurt the base in the Pentagon's evaluation process. Ryan said the task force and Ohio's lawmakers and others have done all they can to position the base to survive BRAC.

"If we're on an even playing field, we're in good shape,'' Ryan said.

In fact, efforts to improve the base have been ongoing since the last BRAC round in 1995, when the base narrowly survived. All reserve bases flying C-130 aircraft were put on the list to close, but in the end, only a base in Chicago was eliminated.

Improvements in the last decade include:

The runway at the Vienna airport, which the bases uses, was lengthened from 7,500 to 9,000 feet. And the airport no longer charges the air base to use the runway and taxiways.

The state Route 11-King Graves Road interchange provides better access to the base.

The Trumbull County has agreed to takeover the water and sewage treatment services for the base, reducing costs for the military.

Money has been secured to improve housing for reservists training at the base.

Trumbull County has created an airport zoning commission to keep private development from interfering with base operations.

Ties between the base's unique aerial spray unit and Kent State University have been strengthened.

In the last year, Operation SOAR has development a campaign to educate the public about the role the airbase plays in the local economy and to encourage public support for the base. Ryan and Gjede have talked about the base to dozens of area organizations.

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When the Pentagon releases the list of base realignments and closings, the politicking will start. Gjede said, "Every congressman, senator and governor will pressure the commission to try to make a change. ... If they show they're open to change, the floodgates will open and they'll have a huge mess on their hands.''

In past BRAC rounds, Gjede said, about 10 percent of the list changes. This time, he said, it has been made clear that there will be fewer changes, but that could depend on how strong the commission is.

Adding a base to the list will require seven votes from the nine BRAC commissioners. Removing a base requires only five votes.

If the Youngstown base is on the list, Gjede said Operation SOAR's continuing mission will be to try to get it off. The task force will try to find a flaw in the Pentagon's analysis or a mistake in the data that can be used to convince the commission to save the base. If they can, Gjede said, that will make it easy for the commission to save the base.

The task force also will work on lobbying and presentations to the commission. The BRAC process calls on the commission to hold regional hearings on the Pentagon's recommendations and one or two commissioners are to visit each base slated to be closed.

If the local base is not on the list, Gjede said the task force will study the report to see how it stacks up against other bases and attend some of the regional hearings to prepare a strategy and be ready to rally at the last minute in case the base is added to the list later.

"We're prepared to be vigilant until the final list goes to the president,'' Gjede said.

 


Copyright 2005, Tribune Chronicle