Everyone in the north country recognizes that Fort Drum plays a huge role in the region's economy. Just how big is the subject of a report the post puts out every year, called the annual economic impact statement. This year's report says Fort Drum contributed over $1.6 billion dollars in spending in the 2011 fiscal year.
Carl McLaughlin has a bird's-eye view of Fort Drum's economic footprint. He's head of the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization. McLaughlin's group acts as a bridge between the post and the surrounding civilian community, and as a community advocate for the post.
McLaughlin says most people think of construction when they think of how Fort Drum contributes to the economy. It creates civilian jobs, new projects often end up in the news, and it's visible – it creates dust and noise and eventually, buildings. But, he says, that's not quite right.
"The bulk of the money actually goes into payroll,” said McLaughlin. “And it's that 19,900 soldiers that you see reported, those 4,000 civilian employees and then the retirees who choose to stay in the north country – that's the economic driver."
More significant than any other economic factor, Fort Drum provides people – people who live and work and spend in the region. The post's report says payroll accounted for 75 percent of Fort Drum's total spending in 2011.
All those purchases add up to a big contribution to sales tax revenue for local governments. And as Fort Drum has grown, so has that pot of money. Back in 2004, the post had about 10,500 soldiers and two infantry brigades – compare that to today's 19,900 soldiers and three infantry brigades.
"At that time, we were collecting about $44 million in taxes in Jefferson County. Today, we're collecting $68 million. That's a significant increase," he said.
McLaughlin says this year's economic impact from Fort Drum is especially high because of two federal war policies – stop loss, and the surge – that resulted in more combat pay for soldiers. Both of those policies have been discontinued as the wars have begun winding down.
As the military confronts the latest round of base closures and a reduction in the overall size of the force, McLaughlin says the north country's priority should be clear.
"Our concern should remain keeping as many soldiers as possible here at Fort Drum,” he said. “That is the economic driver. That is the single and most important factor. All the other things are wonderful, too, but not like keeping that many soldiers here."