Stakeholders are gearing up for "a long fight" to protect Fort Polk in Vernon Parish from personnel losses as the armed services cut forces over the next several years.
"This is not a fight that's going to be over by the summer or the fall," said Jon Grafton, executive director of the England Authority, which operates England Airpark. "We want to fight like crazy to make sure everybody understands the importance of Fort Polk."
Grafton was speaking at a gathering of local elected officials and business leaders Friday at Alexandria International Airport, which is in the airpark and is the intermediate staging area for Fort Polk operations.
Among the speakers was U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, who visited Fort Polk and also met with several area mayors.
"I feel a lot better about it than some might," Alexander said of the Army base's chances to be spared personnel cutbacks. "We're going to do everything we can to make sure Fort Polk is not taken from Central Louisiana. It's too important. Too much has been done."
The recently released "Programmatic Environmental Assessment for Army 2020 Force Structure Realignment" lays out alternatives for reducing the Army's active-duty strength from 562,000 in fiscal year 2012 to 490,000 in 2020. The options being considered affect Fort Polk and 20 other stateside bases.
The first alternative detailed in the report is to deactivate a minimum of eight of the Army's 45 brigade combat teams and realign other support units.
If Fort Polk is targeted under that alternative, it would lose nearly half its strength -- dropping from a fiscal 2011 Army population of 10,877 to 5,577 by 2020. Fort Polk is the home of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division. It also is home to the Joint Readiness Training Center.
Under a second alternative, additional brigade combat teams would be deactivated, while the size of the remaining brigade combat teams would be increased. Fort Polk could gain 1,000 personnel over its current population in that scenario.
A third option would not change staffing at Fort Polk.
"For the last seven years or so, we've been preparing for something like this," Grafton said. "Some communities organize. Some communities say, 'we play golf with the general so it's not going to happen to us.' They are way behind the curve."
Stakeholders have attacked the Army's assessment as containing incomplete and incorrect information about the impact of downsizing at Fort Polk, and have tried to rally local support to make public comments about the report.
Grafton said that amon g the 21 bases discussed in the assessment, Fort Polk had received the third-highest number of comments from the public.
"We want to be No. 1," he said. "Not many, if any, bases around the country have the public support Fort Polk has," Alexander said. "In some areas, the base is a nuisance. That is not the case with Fort Polk."
The deadline to comment on the proposals is March 21.
As the military moves further into the evaluation process, officials will weigh the military value of the targeted installations. That will include factors such as available land, transportation capabilities, training facilities, quality of life for soldiers and their families and possibilities for expansion.
Central Louisiana officials hope to make a strong case there for Fort Polk, including the investment made to support the base in recent years.
"We found this out with (England Air Force Base) -- it really doesn't matter how much it's going to hurt you," said Grafton, referring to the closure of the base in the early 1990s and its redevelopment as England Airpark. "Regardless of who gets cut, they're going to hurt. Your case has got to be a military case on military value. We have to show why Fort Polk is so important to our country."
Losing its only brigade combat team would leave Fort Polk "wounded" when decisions on base closures get made in coming years, Grafton said.
"A brigade combat team is worth almost as much to our community as the Nucor steel mill between Baton Rouge and New Orleans," Grafton said, speaking of Nucor Corp.'s planned multibillion-dollar plant in Convent. "To lose that would be a big, big loss, not only to our community, but to the state."