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Lobbying for Border Military BaseSalem-News.com
The sequester cuts come at a time when Ft. Bliss’ big spurt of growth is winding down.
(LAS CRUCES, NM) - As budget cuts stare down from the so-called sequester agreement in Congress, El Paso officials are lobbying Washington for continued support of Fort Bliss. The campaign unfolded as a new University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) study analyzing the local economic impact of Ft. Bliss and William Beaumont Army Medical Center (WBAMC) was released to the media.
Sponsored by the El Paso Chamber of Commerce and funded by the Hunt Family Foundation, the study calculated Ft. Bliss’ impact on the local economy in the neighborhood of $6 billion annually. Ft. Bliss and WBAMC directly employ more than 40,000 military and civilian personnel, according to the findings. Of the personnel working for Fort Bliss, 29,000 are soldiers and 8,000 civilians. The U.S. Army base has undergone an unprecedented expansion from 9,000 soldiers in 2005.
“Income generated by Ft. Bliss goes all over El Paso,” soldier Wascae A. Diaz, told a local reporter. “We have the opportunity to spend money off-base at the movie theater, the mall, markets, with mechanics, and at restaurants.”
El Paso Mayor John Cook added that the economic vitality of Fort Bliss percolates not only in the Sun City but in the southern New Mexico cities of Las Cruces and Alamogordo as well. Cook said an El Paso delegation headed to Washington would attempt to convince the Department of Defense to grow Fort Bliss instead of cutting it as part of the $85 billion in federal spending reductions.
The border military base is capable of supporting military operations “harder, better, cheaper than anywhere else in the nation,” Cook argued.
The sequester cuts come at a time when Ft. Bliss’ big spurt of growth is winding down. Construction spending related to the expansion this year is expected to be less than half of 2012’s record high of $121.4 million, for an expenditure of $55 million. In addition, the German Air Force Command for the United States and Canada plans to move from Fort Bliss to Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo next September 30.
El Paso’s housing sales are likely to feel the sequester squeeze. Charles de Wetter of the Coldwell Banker realty firm said military and civilian personnel from Fort Bliss represented the majority of home buyers in the growing eastern and northeastern sections of the city in 2012.
“(Sequester) will affect in grand magnitude the sale of homes in El Paso in 2013,” de Wetter said. By the end of last year, a brisk El Paso housing market showed significant growth in sales as well as an increase in average sales prices of 5.2 percent.
According to de Wetter, the opening or expansion of two local hospitals should cushion somewhat any slowdown in the Fort Bliss-connected housing market.
UTEP studies on Ft. Bliss show steady growth in the military installation’s role in the local economy, increasing from an $823 million impact in 1989 to $1.7 billion in 2002 and then to approximately $6 billion by the latest study, which included WBAMC. A 2004 UTEP study pegged the overall impact of Ft. Bliss and two nearby facilities in New Mexico, White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base, at $2.6 billion.
At a news conference late last week, Fort Bliss spokesman Major Joe Buccino repeated an oft-quoted saying attributed to the base’s military commander: “El Paso is Fort Bliss and Fort Bliss is El Paso.”
Fort Bliss’ 21st century expansion played out in a transformed local economic landscape. In the years prior to the expansion, El Paso experienced massive job losses in the once-important garment, smelting, electronic and agricultural sectors. Many of the jobs went overseas or across the border.
Despite the subsequent infusion of military money, unemployment stands at higher-than-average levels in El Paso. In January 2013, the Texas border city registered a 9.2 percent unemployment rate, a number which represented an improvement over the January 2012 rate of 9.6 percent but was still far above the national average of 7.9 percent and the Texas average of 6.3 percent, according to the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC).
The state agency reported that El Paso shed 4,100 jobs in January, with half the loss traced to lay-offs in the retail sector following the Christmas shopping season. The TWC estimates 30,800 El Paso residents were unemployed and searching for work during the first month of the year.
The local effort to safeguard Ft. Bliss from sequester forms part of a broader concern over the impact of the federal budget cuts on the border economy as it exists. Miguel Angel Calderon Rodriguez, vice-president of the Chihuahua Economists Association, predicted the budget cuts will lead to manufacturing decreases in the maquiladora sector that exports 90 percent of its products to the United States.
Sequester, he warned, could trigger “psychological effects” on consumption levels. Calderon concurred with Mexican maquiladora industry representatives that other effects of the budget slashing could include lengthening the already-long border crossing times and upping the cost of doing business.
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