Courtesy of the Town Talk Written by: Jeff Matthews
Central Louisiana would experience significant adverse effects from a downsizing at Fort Polk, Army officials acknowledge in a recent report detailing proposed cuts at several installations.
The “Supplemental Programmatic Environmental Assessment for Army 2020 Force Structure Realignment” details alternatives to reduce the Army’s strength by an additional 70,000 personnel. Cuts at 30 installations are being examined, including Fort Polk.
The Army base in Vernon Parish could lose up to 6,500 personnel from its current military population of 10,836.
Nonprofit Fort Polk Progress, which is dedicated to supporting and advocating for the base, has called a press conference in Leesville today with other stakeholders to inform the public how it can help. It will be at 10 a.m. in the upstairs courtroom at the Historic Vernon Parish Courthouse, 201 S. Third St. in Leesville.
Stakeholders credit a robust campaign — including an unprecedented number of public comments on behalf of the base — with saving Fort Polk from cutbacks during a similar process last year.
“I will say this, the Army did a better job in the Supplemental PEA of incorporating the comments we made last year,” said Fort Polk Progress Chairman Michael Reese. “We are in the process of analyzing the data to determine if any information may have been omitted or may not be accurate.”
The SPEA report examined a radius of influence for Fort Polk that includes Beauregard, Natchitoches, Rapides Sabine and Vernon parishes. That area had a 2012 population of more than 286,000.
According to the report, the maximum potential personnel loss would cause “significant impacts to income, employment and population” in the ROI.
Of the 6,500 maximum troops Fort Polk could lose, 6,039 are soldiers and 461 civilians. Those positions have an average salary of $46,760 and $54,499, respectively.
Combined with projected lost contract jobs and a decline in demand for goods and services, the SPEA estimates a loss of 8,245 jobs (7.2 percent of total current jobs in the ROI) and a total loss of income of $369.4 million annually. It also projects an annual loss in sales of $401.6 million.
The report predicts a population loss of 16,367, or 5.7 percent of the ROI. It predicts a small number of the eliminated personnel may stay in the area, but most will leave as “there are few employment sectors in the ROI to absorb the number of displaced military employees.”
Impact on schools
Schools in Vernon and Beauregard parishes also would be hard-hit by the population loss at Fort Polk.
Military-connected students make up 33 percent of enrollment in Vernon and 8 percent in Beauregard, according to the report. A total of 3,815 students connected to the military attend schools in those parishes, which receive about $6.5 million a year in Federal Impact Aid Funds as a result.
“Overall, schools within the ROI could experience significant, adverse impacts from the decline in military-connected student enrollment,” the SPEA states.
In addition to the potential forced cutbacks of teachers and other staff that would result from the student population loss, Vernon Parish has invested millions in upgrades geared in part to serve children of military parents.
Leesville High School currently is undergoing a $21.5 million renovation, to be completed this upcoming school year. More than $21 million in funding has been allocated for the construction of a new school, South Polk Elementary School.
Those projects, the SPEA notes, have “exhausted the school board’s bond authority.”
Another area expected to be impacted is housing. Decreased demand and increased availability due to population loss could result in a decrease in home values, the SPEA acknowledges, particularly in communities surrounding the base, such as Leesville and DeRidder.
Other notes from the SPEA:
• Fort Polk has a total working population of 23,300 and an on-base residential population of 23,900.
The largest unit stationed at Fort Polk is the 4th Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, with about 3,500 soldiers. The 1st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade (2,600 soldiers), 162nd Infantry Brigade (1,366 soldiers) and 115th Combat Support Hospital (266) are other strategic deployable units stationed on the base. Several aircraft are permanently assigned to the base, and the Louisiana and Texas Air National Guards use it to launch operations.
Fort Polk also is home to the Joint Readiness Training Center, which hosts 10 to 12 training operations yearly, during which an average of 3,500 personnel come to the base daily. The JRTC has more than 1,200 solders in its operations group.
• The report acknowledges the land acquisition under way at Fort Polk, a bone of contention during the downsizing process last year, when a similar report failed to mention the program.
The base has been authorized to expand by up to 100,000 acres. As of May, the Army Corps of Engineers had acquired about 32,500 acres of a targeted 42,500.
• Though it does not acknowledge the millions of dollars invested in transportation upgrades to support Fort Polk, the report does take into account the capabilities at Alexandria International Airport, which it notes “can accept and support any combination of size and number of Air Force or civilian transport aircraft required under any operational scenario at the installation.”