NJ's Disappearing Army Bases

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Over the last 15 years, almost every state has lost a fort, shipyard or arms depot, as the Defense Department has reshaped the military to save money. WNYC’s Fred Mogul looks at what became of one former Army post in New Jersey – and what that might mean for Fort Monmouth, which the Pentagon also wants to close.

REPORTER: For decades, the U.S. Army’s Camp Evans played a major role in military communication technology. The small post near the central Jersey Shore started out as a Marconi wireless station, helped develop radar and satellite technology, but gradually became less important in the post-War era. It was closed in 1993.

CARL: This is a wireless spark-gap transmitter. You would click on this, and – buzz, buzz! You could, of course, only do Morse Code, but in its day that was the best and coolest thing.

REPORTER: Fred Carl has led a stalwart group of local volunteers slowly converting the heart of Camp Evans into a science museum.

CARL: Children will be learning science and history at the very same site and in the very same buildings that very important science and history was done here during WWI, WWII, the Cold War and the very earliest days of the information age.

REPORTER: A small temporary museum opened last month in two old brick houses on the post. A permanent 4-to-5-million-dollar museum is slowly taking shape in the larger buildings across the street.Strolling beneath century-old sycamore trees, Carl says he knew that the Army wouldn’t just hand over the keys, but he never imagined it would take quite so long.

CARL: If this were a commercially owned industrial site this would have been done in 3-5 years. Here we are 12 years into it. Everything’s been delayed. This site should have been turned over by 2000. It’s now 2005.

REPORTER: Camp Evans is one of dozens of posts around the country shuttered in the last 20 years to save money. About 10 miles north, local leaders are trying to prevent the same thing from happening to the much larger Fort Monmouth. The post doesn’t house many soldiers. It employs about 7-thousand civilians, mostly in technical fields. People here say the fort is the Army’s “Bell Labs” – the place where it develops everything from roadside bomb-jamming devices to software for managing the increasingly computerized battlefields. Backers of the fort such as Congressman Rush Holt claim their main interest is national security, not local jobs.

HOLT: Ft. Monmouth should not be on this list for closure. It would put service men and women at risk today and next year in the field.

REPORTER: The Pentagon says it can save hundreds of millions of dollars by dispersing Fort Monmouth’s functions to other posts. Its core operation, the Communications Electronics Command would go to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. The recommendation now goes to an independent panel called “BRAC” – the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. Communities like this one try to persuade BRAC that the Pentagon was mistaken. The Department of Defense tells base-supporters: Make your best case, but begin contingency planning in case you don’t succeed. Few of them take the DoD’s advice. Maria Gatta, the mayor of nearby Oceanport, is typical.

GATTA: Right now I think all our efforts are focused on saving the fort. We’ve been in this situation before, and we’ve been able to withstand DoD’s recommendation, so we’re hoping obviously we will do it this time.

REPORTER: New Jersey Commerce Secretary Virginia Bauer says the state should not start thinking about what might happen to the 11,000 acres and 7,000-plus jobs at Fort Monmouth if it closes. Not yet. She says even appearing to consider ‘Life-After-Closure’ would look bad.

BAUER: I think sometimes that might present an easier option for the Pentagon – if they know that you have a viable alternative, they may not take as seriously our claim to save this../EDIT/…:32 And let’s not worry about what we’re gonna have to do later. We really don’t want to consider that option.

REPORTER: So there aren’t even quiet murmurings about what to do with the area if the fort closes?

BAUER: If they were quiet, I wouldn’t be telling you that, Fred! [laughs] No, no there isn’t -- nothing at this juncture.

REPORTER: Some developers have been eyeing the lawns, woods, buildings and roads of Fort Monmouth for home-building and commercial construction. Like many places, property values here are already high and climbing higher. James Hughes, head of Rutgers University’s Planning and Public Policy School, says turning this area into parks and schools, subdivisions, shopping plazas and office parks would benefit the local economy. But that would be a small consolation for losing a large military post.

HUGHES: It does represent a basic industry that is drawing dollars from out of state into New Jersey and regional economy. That’s quite different than a service job which just recycles dollars within a local economy.

REPORTER: Mike Ruane is one of many private contractors with offices right on Fort Monmouth. Some, like his, have a handful of workers, while others employ hundreds. They work on everything from improving radar systems to developing mine detectors to training military and civilian institutions to resist terrorist attacks. That’s what Ruane’s firm does. Today he’s helping the post get ready for a big influx of visitors. Fort Monmouth accounts for about 60 percent of his work and keeps him busy enough to turn away potential customers. He’s not calling them up just yet, but he is thinking it might be about time to start diversifying his client base.

RUANE: Right now we primarily work in Monmouth County. I have had inquiries in Bergen County as well as Hudson County, and we’re probably going to eventually spread out there -- increase our scope, increase the breadth of where we’re going.

REPORTER: Ruane and most others here say they would not relocate to Maryland, where the Army wants to consolidate much of its communication technology research and development. Congressman Holt and others say their strongest argument is that this area has a skilled workforce the Pentagon can’t replace 150 miles to the south. He paints a rosy picture of central New Jersey as a high-tech hot-bed.

RUANE: New Jersey is more important to Fort Monmouth than Fort Monmouth is to New Jersey. They talk about moving it to Maryland -- well, we have more scientists and engineers per capita here in New Jersey, than anybody else.

REPORTER: But New Jersey has been steadily losing technology jobs for almost a decade, even while the sector is up, nationally. James Hughes, the planning professor from Rutgers, says that if the base closes, the thousands who work here probably could find other positions eventually, though not without hardship. And if Fort Monmouth does avoid closure? Well, says Hughes, it might be a good time for business and government leaders to do something they didn’t do after escaping the chopping block twice in the 1990s: begin planning for a day when the area can no longer depend on money from Washington.