The Watertown area’s economy is heavily dependent on Fort Drum. With the federal budget sequester on and the Afghanistan war winding down, the numbers of soldiers assigned to the post and civilians working there is likely to decrease. But the outlook is more complicated than just doom and gloom.
It’s Carl McLaughlin’s job to pay attention to how Fort Drum impacts the surrounding community. He’s the head of the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization, a nonprofit that helps leaders from the post and community talk and plan.
In a recent meeting, the Army projected a 12 percent decrease over the next few years in what it calls the total base population. That’s about 2,800 people. McLaughlin’s reaction to the news might seem surprising.
“Am I alarmed by it?” he says. “No.”
The reason McLaughlin isn’t worried – and the reason local officials and the business community shouldn’t be either, he says – is that there’s a big piece of the puzzle missing from the official numbers predictions out of Fort Drum.
“We’re going to have whatever soldiers we have, here,” McLaughlin explains. “That’s different. We’ve never seen that. There will be deployments, but they’ll be training deployments, they’ll be shorter, and not as frequent. I see a plus.”
Deployments at the height of the war were longer and more frequent. As that’s changed, military families have had more reason to move to the north country. They can actually be with their soldiers.
McLaughlin says that’s why the decrease in official numbers at the post and the actual numbers of soldiers and families here are likely to produce a wash in terms of economic impact.
“When I look at the numbers, I’m probably a little more worried about the civilian workforce and the contracted workforce – not contractors who build, but contracted for particular services. Those are the areas that are probably going to be scrutinized a little more tightly,” he says.
Of the 2,800 people projected to leave Fort Drum in the coming years, about 400 would be civilian workers. Even if the military and military-related population in the north country remains relatively steady overall, any job losses are going to be bad news to the affected workers.
Fort Drum declined to comment for this story, but two officials say none of these personnel changes have been set in stone yet.