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Asbury Park Press May 22, 2005

Tough decision

If Fort Monmouth closes, the workers at Shrewsbury defense contractor Aguila Management Inc. will face a dilemma: Should they move with the company or stay here and look for another job? It's a scenario being played out at scores of other area firms.

By Michael L. Diamond and David P. Willis

Five workers at Aquila Management Inc., a defense contractor in Shrewsbury, sat around a conference table Wednesday and played out a scenario: If Fort Monmouth closes, would they stay here or move, with their jobs, to another state?

They weighed the factors, including their ages, their ties to the Shore and their chances of finding comparable jobs nearby. Four said they would stay. One said she would move.

"I could toss a coin," said Joseph Schannen, 62, of Eatontown, a senior associate. "But I'd toss it three or four times to make sure I'd stay."

The lives of thousands of employees at local defense contractors have been put on hold while they wait to see if the Base Realignment and Closure Commission's final report in September agrees with the Pentagon's recommendation to close Fort Monmouth.

If the commission agrees, Aquila Management Inc.'s contracts with the Army would continue at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, 30 miles outside of Baltimore. The company's employees will face a tough choice of whether to relocate.

How many researchers would make the move apparently was a concern last week to at least two BRAC commission members, who said they were worried the Army would lose technical talent needed to fight the war in Iraq.

Workers at Fort Monmouth research and develop communications and intelligence systems for the Army. For example, right now they are studying how to jam improvised explosive devices used in Iraq before they explode and how to pull data off enemies' cell phones.

It isn't clear if the threat of losing those employees because the work is relocating is a big enough issue to sway the commission's decision.

"It's certainly part of our argument," Rep. Frank J. Pallone Jr. said. "Part of the military value (of the closing) . . . is to the extent to which the work force moves. If the work force doesn't move and you're not able to function properly, the military value decreases and the move doesn't make sense."

In addition to the 5,085 civilian employees and 467 military personnel who work at Fort Monmouth, Pallone's office estimates there are 4,000 to 5,000 employees who work for defense contractors, helping the Army with its technical projects and intelligence support.

The federal government awarded $864.6 million in contracts in federal fiscal year 2004 to companies performing work at Fort Monmouth. As a result, the fort has attracted contractors both large and small.

Aquila Management has 10 contracts with the Army, one of which is for 20 years. The company provides engineering, logistics and program management services for the Army in two locations — Shrewsbury, where 25 people work, and Fort Hood, Texas, where 75 people work. Company officials wouldn't disclose specific programs it is working on.

The company was founded in 1998 by Diane L. Martinez-Zalewski, a Red Bank native, and her ties to the community run deep enough that she said she plans to keep the company in Shrewsbury even if Fort Monmouth closes. She would open another satellite office in Maryland to accommodate the Army.

It's a decision that makes Karie de Palo breathe easier. De Palo, 31, of Tinton Falls, is the corporate business manager who has worked at the post for 12 years. Her grandfather, William, was a retired colonel who was stationed at Fort Monmouth after World War II. Her family and boyfriend live here. And in the summer, she surfs.

"I will not move to Aberdeen," de Palo said.

"These are some of the decisions that face everybody," Martinez-Zalewski said. "It's that human interest that affects everybody's decision process."

It's not unusual for employees at defense contractors to face relocation. Since 1988, the Pentagon has closed 97 military bases. And defense spending is cyclical, rising and falling depending on whether America is at war or peace.

"Every time you relocate you're going to lose some intellectual capital because some people with the company for a while are just not going to want to move," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense and aerospace analyst in Alexandria, Va.

Few workers move

Many contractors at Fort Monmouth have seen the impact before.

Lou M. Lifrieri, senior vice president at CACI International Inc. in Eatontown, was a program director at QuesTech Inc. when the company moved its business that supported the U.S. Army's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems at Vint Hill Farms Station in Virginia to Fort Monmouth in the late 1990s. QuesTech was purchased by CACI in 1998.

Out of 150 scientists and engineers at QuesTech, about 15 volunteered to move to New Jersey between 1996 and 1998. "It has taken about five to seven years to rebuild that capability," Lifrieri said.

Allentown resident Robert F. Giordano, a past director of the Research and Development Engineering Center at Fort Monmouth, interviewed civilian Army employees during the same move. Out of 180 people, 29 people moved. "That's not good," he said.

People take into account various personal factors when figuring out if they are going to move. He found that many people were from households with two incomes in which a spouse, in some cases, earned more than they did. Other employees had children in schools or felt that they could get another job near their home in Virginia, said Giordano, who is now a consultant.

Critical skills

It's more than just the number of jobs, said Lifrieri, a member of the Save Our Fort committee. Employees who work at Fort Monmouth and its network of defense contractors have critical skills and important relationships with their military customers.

"Each time we move that intellectual capital base, it is going to cause us to degrade the advancement of this important technology," Lifrieri said. "That poses a serious threat to our national security, both at home and abroad."

Still, CACI would follow the work. "We are commited to the war fighter," he said. "We are prepared to perform that mission at any location at any time."

Workers' decisions no doubt would be made easier if they had good jobs to fall back on in New Jersey. But the jobs at Aquila, at least, pay $60,000 to $100,000 a year, and comparable private sector jobs in the state have become scarce.

Employment in the telecommunications sector fell to 41,100 last year from 58,100 in 2001, said James W. Hughes, an economist and dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.

It's a thought that doesn't escape Michael DeCesare, a vice president at MTC Technologies Inc. in Eatontown. His company has about 125 employees providing engineering and specialized technology at Fort Monmouth.

DeCesare, 53, of Oceanport has a long history in the area; he graduated from Christian Brothers Academy in Middletown. But by the time Fort Monmouth closes, his two children, now 21 and 18, would be on their own. And he wonders if one-time giants AT&T and Lucent Technologies will be in a position to hire.

"A lot of people here have young children and they would have to really do some soul-searching about uprooting children," DeCesare said. As for himself, "I would have to take a good, hard look at it."

The soul-searching apparently has begun at Aquila Management. Even though its corporate office could stay in Shrewsbury, the workers in the field would have to move.

"The most senior intellectual capital is going to walk away, and that's a problem," Martinez-Zalewski, said.

Liz Mayer, 51, of Ocean Township, a budget analyst, has three children over 17. Her husband was laid off a year ago from AT&T but found another job at the post. And her two sisters also work at the post. If push came to shove, she said she would go.

"If I could take my family with me and have a place to worship, I don't really care." Mayer, an orthodox Jew, said.

But others said they would call it quits.

John Eugene Quigley, 63, of Middletown, a senior associate, said he would probably just retire; one of his daughters is getting married soon, while another died in the World Trade Center attack.

"I wouldn't even consider it," Quigley said of moving. "I can retire."

And Richard Vogel, 59, of Wall, a senior associate and operations research analyst, said his wife, Jacqueline, works as a nurse in Brielle. They don't have children, but they do have five nieces and nephews. His family's ties to the area date back more than 100 years.

For him, picking up and moving "is not an option right now," he said.


Copyright 2005, Asbury Park Press