Out of joint

Officials say plans to eliminate Norfolk-based command could be ‘devastating’

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Print this page by Heather B. Hayes

Business and political leaders in Hampton Roads are searching for ways to stop the Department of Defense from eliminating the Norfolk-based Joint Forces Command (JFCOM).

If JFCOM can’t be saved, officials hope to keep at least some of its responsibilities in Hampton Roads to minimize damage to the economy.
“It’s devastating,” says Jack Hornbeck, CEO and president of Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce. If JFCOM closes, “it would have a very significant economic impact here in Hampton Roads.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates plans to eliminate JFCOM, which employs 6,000 people, most of them in Hampton Roads. Contractors make up half of the work force, with the rest divided between military personnel and civil employees.

JFCOM is based at Norfolk Naval Station and has a massive command center complex in northern Suffolk. Its mission is to train forces from all military services to work together as teams.

In addition to closing JFCOM, Gates announced plans to cut spending for defense contractors 10 percent a year for the next three years, a move that could slow the growth of Northern Virginia’s economy.

Virginia’s political leadership condemned Gate’s decision.  Gov. Bob McDonnell says closing JFCOM “will cost good-quality, high-paying jobs for thousands of Virginians and could not come at a worse time.”

McDonnell and the state’s congressional delegation questioned the wisdom of the move, suggesting that it could compromise the nation’s military strength. Sen. Jim Webb says the closure decision should have followed the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process, which would have allowed community input.  Nonetheless, Gates will not need congressional approval to implement his proposals.

Hornbeck says some JFCOM functions could be moved to other military installations in Hampton Roads. “But there’s no doubt about it, that the net result is that there is going to be a reduction in force in terms of number of employees and economic activity,” he says.

The shutdown would touch “a whole bunch of other people who work for companies that support JFCOM — retailers, hotels, restaurants, suppliers, whatever the case may be,” Hornbeck says. 

JFCOM’s closure also will affect Old Dominion University’s Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC) “since a significant portion of our research funding comes from that organization, “ says John Sokolowski, VMASC’s executive director. “The extent of the impact cannot be gauged until we know the specifics of how the JFCOM closure will proceed. A mitigating factor has been our diversification of modeling and simulation into several other sectors over the last several years, but clearly an impact will be felt.”

The JFCOM announce­­­-ment comes at a time when Hampton Roads already faces two other potential changes in its economy. The Navy wants to shift an aircraft carrier based in Norfolk to Mayport, Fla., a move that could cost the region 11,000 jobs. In addition, Northrop Grumman Corp. is considering selling or spinning off its shipbuilding unit, which employs 19,000 workers in Newport News.

However, Mike Kuhns, vice president of the Virginia Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, believes new ownership of the shipyard will not hurt the economy. He notes that the shipyard, the sole U.S. facility able to build and overhaul nuclear carriers, has been sold before. “They have such a tailored, specialized skill set that the general feeling is that that will likely get spun off and everything will be okay,” Kuhns says.

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