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Fort Drum spending falls, but economic impact rises

Payne Horning
Executive director of the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization Brian Ashley, center, explains how Fort Drum impacts the North Country economy.

Despite continued downsizing at Fort Drum, the base's impact on the local economy actually increased in 2016.

The northern New York army base spent nearly $1.2 billion dollars last year. That's down by about $300 million from 2015 with most of those cuts from payroll. That influx of money indirectly supported about $400 million in economic activity across Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties.

Executive director of the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization Brian Ashley says the base, which houses about 15,000 soldiers, continues to be a major asset for the north country.

"There is no bigger economic engine in New York state than Fort Drum," Ashley said. 

Spending at Fort Drum has been dropping annually since Congress enacted across-the-board cuts in domestic and military spending in 2011. Economic activity in the region has typically fallen along with it, but for the past two years the numbers seem to be leveling off. Officials with the Jefferson County Economic Development organization attribute that to a number of factors, including a rise in the number of soldiers and their families who are staying in the area because of an increase in local housing.

"Fort Drum’s spending may have decreased and a lot of that was probably purchases and construction, but the fact that there were fewer troops deployed in 2016, the fact that we had enough housing, more of the families stayed locally, more of that money was being spent here," said Dave Zembiec, deputy CEO of the Jefferson County Economic Development organization.

Zembiec said the fact that spending is down from peaks during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, when the base housed around 20,000 soldiers, could offer more stability for the regional economy. Jefferson County Legislator and business owner Robert Ferris agrees. He says a steady, reliable stream of income is in some ways preferable.

"I would much rather have my troops home, I would rather have them safe, like to have a constant spending so I can control my environment and employee staff," Ferris said. "There’s nothing worse than when they are going and coming." 

Still, Ashley says Fort Drum has the capacity to host an influx of soldiers, an outcome he believes is possible.

"We are also seeing some rumblings in Washington that sequestration may come to an end and we may see some additional monies being spent across the board in the armed forces," Ashley said. "We have the room, capabilities, flexibility at Fort Drum to take additional soldiers and take on additional missions. So, we would welcome any increase that the Trump administration wants to make in the defense budget that would result in additional soldiers coming back to Fort Drum."

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.