Through her involvement in Southeast Georgia Friends of Fort Stewart and Hunter (Army Airfield), Pembroke Mayor Mary Warnell often has touted the importance the military installation has to southeast Georgia.
“The impact of both Stewart and Hunter extends far beyond the boundary lines of Fort Stewart and county lines of Bryan, Liberty, Chatham, Long, Tattnall and Evans counties,” Warnell said Tuesday.
Warnell and other Bryan Countians breathed a collective sigh of relief after the recent announcement that the Army will cut 950 soldiers from Fort Stewart by the end of fiscal year 2017 – far fewer than the worst-case scenario.
“In the scheme of things and as sad as it is for any cuts to occur, it is a relief that the number is 950,” Warnell said.
“It’s unfortunate. We don’t want to see any downsizing of the troops at Fort Stewart and Hunter,” said Brianne Yontz, executive director of the Richmond Hill-Bryan County Chamber of Commerce. “We are blessed with the military here, and I’m just thankful that it’s not more of a reduction.”
By comparison, Fort Benning near Columbus will lose 3,400 soldiers, according to news releases from Georgia elected officials and the military.
“This is good news and bad news,” Richmond Hill City Councilman Russ Carpenter said. “Good, because it is not as many as have been cut under sequestration. Bad news, obviously, that Richmond Hill businesses, from retail to home builders, will be affected with the loss – hopefully minimally.”
Warnell cited the worst-case scenario presented in the initial Army 2020 Force Structure Realignment report that as many as 15,317 soldiers and 683 Army civilian positions could have been cut at Fort Stewart.
The Army estimates the economic impact of Fort Stewart and Hunter at $4.9 billion, Warnell said. That includes military payroll, Army civilian payroll, retiree benefits, school impact funds and money spent in the local economy.
“We applaud the local leadership and communities in southeast Georgia for banding together to illustrate the positive impact Fort Stewart has on our communities, region, state and country,” said Development Authority of Bryan County CEO Anna Chafin. “The soldiers and their families, as well as the civilians at Fort Stewart, certainly contribute to our regional economy. In Bryan County, they are involved in our local community, helping to make it a vibrant and desirable place to live.”
Bryan County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jimmy Burnsed noted that Fort Stewart’s “reduction is lessened somewhat” by the Army’s decision to relocate Fort Gordon’s 63rd Expeditionary Signal Battalion, and its 450 soldiers, to Fort Stewart.
Active military, Army civilians, retirees and their families comprise about 100,000 of the area’s population, according to Warnell. More than 1,500 Bryan County students are from military families, she said.
“If Fort Stewart were to become inactive, that could have resulted in one or more Bryan County schools closing with the loss of teachers, administrators and classified employees of our school system,” Warnell said. “There could have been a loss of population resulting in lower housing demands in Bryan County and there could have been the loss of medical services to the military retirees living in our city and county.”
Warnell has been involved for the past three years in the non-profit Southeast Georgia Friends of Fort Stewart and Hunter. She has met with regional and national leaders to stress the economic value of the installations.
“It has been a privilege for me to join the delegation of officials to visit the Pentagon and Congress on numerous occasions to discuss the value of Fort Stewart and Hunter to our region, to emphasize the strategic location of the installation, its training capabilities and its readiness and efficiency in deployment,” Warnell said.
“Hopefully our legislators are fighting to do what they can,” Richmond Hill Mayor Harold Fowler said. “I’m hoping maybe they can kind of head this off a bit. If not, it will definitely hurt the city of Richmond Hill and Bryan County and our local businesses.”
While acknowledging that economic impact, Warnell also offered another perspective.
“The loss of the 950 troops will not directly affect the city of Pembroke,” she said, “but we must remember it does negatively affect each of the 950 soldiers and their families.”