North country's economy can survive troop cut at Fort Drum, community leaders say
When the Army announced earlier this week that Fort Drum would lose 1,500 soldiers as part of a plan to reduce troops across the force, north country community leaders started trying to figure out what the impact would be.
They seem to agree that Fort Drum escaped this round of personnel cuts relatively unscathed.
Carl McLaughlin heads up the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization, a nonprofit that acts as a meeting ground for the community and the Army post to plan and problem solve together. He said no one in the north country likes any cuts at Fort Drum, but, “This is not the crisis. I mean, the crisis is if we go significantly below where we're headed in the next four years.”
In the past two years, Fort Drum has reduced the size of its force from almost 20,000 soldiers to just over 17,000. These new cuts will bring the troop strength to about 15,500, maybe as low as 15,000.
“This cut is going to be mild, compared to what has naturally happened already,” McLaughlin said. “Now, I'm not saying you're not going to notice it. Yeah, you're not going to have the business traffic, you're not going to have everything at the peaks that you've been enjoying. But it's something we can – we can cope with this.”
Watertown Mayor Jeff Graham agrees that Fort Drum fared well in this round of Army cutbacks. The post will lose about 9 percent of its soldier population, less than the overall Army rate of about 14 percent.
“I think this represents a continued commitment to the north country post, and I think we have to monitor other parts of all of this – you know, other units that may be moving in that will mitigate the actual loss of a combat brigade,” he said.
The reduction by 1,500 represents a net loss. The post will lose one brigade but gain additional battalions. But Graham was also referring to Fort Drum's expanding drone program, and talk that the post could house an East Coast missile defense site, if one is approved.
While Graham is optimistic about Fort Drum's future, he also acknowledged the uncertainty involved with making any projections.
“Obviously, you'd like someone to stand up and say there'll be no impact, or an increase, but we can't just continue to rely on the expansion of Fort Drum as the sole component of the local economy,” he said. “You know, it's been good, but we do tend to do that at times, and when that one dimension burps a little bit, everybody gets aghast.”
Another possible factor affecting Fort Drum in the near future is the federal budget sequester. Some civilian employees at the post are already required to take unpaid furloughs. Military personnel are exempt from that during this fiscal year, but whether or not the sequester will ultimately hit them, too, depends on congressional action.