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Government shutdown hits military towns hard

Customers shop for guns at Jim's Pawn Shop in Fayetteville, N.C., where many businesses feared sales would be hurt by the government shutdown.
(David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times)

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — First, Robert Randles got “riffed” — removed from his building inspector job at Ft. Bragg as part of the military’s “reduction in force.”

Next, he got “sequestered” — forced to take an unpaid day off every week for six weeks this summer from his new job as an electrician at the Army base.

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Then, this month, Randles, a 50-year-old Army veteran, became a victim of the government shutdown. Along with 7,250 other civilian government workers at Ft. Bragg, he was furloughed.

The shutdown sent shock waves through Fayetteville, a tough, vibrant military town that for decades has enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the sprawling military reservation on its shoulder. When asked where they’re from, many Ft. Bragg soldiers born and raised elsewhere reply, “Fayetteville.”

Fayetteville would still be a sleepy Southern hamlet without Ft. Bragg and the Army’s adjacent Pope Field. The city’s identity is inextricably bound with the military, from the gun stores and strip clubs along Bragg Boulevard to the “Iron Mike” paratrooper statue at the entrance to the city’s revitalized downtown.

Some unexpected — and welcome — news arrived Saturday when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that about 350,000 civilian defense workers would be called back to work. A Ft. Bragg spokesman said most of the base’s furloughed Defense Department workers would be on the job Monday. In all, about 800,000 federal employees had been idled.

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Hagel said the worker recall was possible after lawyers determined that the Pay Our Military Act, a measure passed by Congress and signed into law shortly before the shutdown began Tuesday, could also apply to civilian workers “whose responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities and readiness of service members.”

The shutdown, sequestration cutbacks and earlier reductions in force have combined to disrupt the economy of a city that has worked hard to shake off its Vietnam-era image as a haven for honky-tonks, prostitutes and drug dealers. Downtown’s Hay Street, once a dangerous no-man’s land, now features upscale shops, restaurants and craft beer emporiums.

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Some merchants, such as Jose Valentin, have been fighting to convince people unsure of the downtown’s transformation that it is safe, friendly and family-oriented. Valentin manages Beef O’Brady’s, which advertises itself as a “family sports pub.”

“It’ll definitely hurt us,” he said of the shutdown. “And the longer it goes on, the worse it’s going to get.”

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The civilian and military workforce here pumps $25 million a day into the local economy. The Fayetteville metro area relies on Ft. Bragg for 38% of its gross domestic product. More than 200 defense contractors are based here, and Ft. Bragg is home to 57,000 soldiers and thousands more dependents.

The shutdown and sequestration — the huge budget cuts that kicked in when the White House and Congress could not agree on a budget deal last year — have eroded Fayettevillle’s long-standing assumption that it is largely immune from economic downturns because of the military presence.

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“We’ve always thought we were recession-proof,” said Wally Hinkamp, 54, whose family-run jewelry store relies on the military for at least a quarter of its business. “Now we’re not so sure.”

It’s the same story in other military towns, including Killeen, Texas, outside Ft. Hood; Hinesville, Ga., outside Ft. Stewart; Clarksville, Tenn., near Ft. Campbell, Ky.; and Oceanside outside Camp Pendleton.

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At Ft. Bragg, several workers broke down in tears after they were told to go home when the furloughs began Tuesday, said Tom McCollum, a base spokesman.

“It’s had a big emotional impact. It’s really caused morale to hit rock bottom,” he said.

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The base’s two commissaries have shut down, forcing military families to pay higher food prices — and state and local taxes — at civilian food stores. Emergency and other essential services are functioning normally, but Ft. Bragg is halting street sweeping, repairs to barracks and many other services. It was unclear when the commissaries would reopen.

In Fayetteville, population 205,000, the shutdown has spurred resentment and anger — not toward the military, but Congress.

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“I’d vote for a dog trainer over these incompetents,” Randles, the furloughed electrician, said of members of Congress.

Even with some civilians returning to work, problems remain for military bases. The Pentagon’s comptroller, Robert Hale, on Saturday said the shutdown meant there was no money to order supplies or equipment for most normal operations. “We don’t have authority to enter into obligations for supplies, parts, fuel, etc., unless it is tied to a military operation,” he said.

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Hale said several thousand civilian employees would remain on furlough, including public affairs officers, financial officers and auditors.

For federal contractors, the shutdown is a coda to months of uncertainty and canceled contracts. Because government and military contracts are awarded months in advance, local contractors lost out this summer because of fears of sequester cutbacks and the threat of a government shutdown.

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Brian Kent, a military veteran, owns K3 Enterprises, a 50-employee firm that supplies technology and training to the military and federal government. He said he spent money this summer preparing for a federal contract that was suddenly halted Tuesday by a “stop order” triggered by the shutdown.

For the last six months, he said, he hasn’t replaced workers who have left. As the shutdown drags on, he’s unable to plan for future contracts.

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“Nobody wants to invest in uncertainty,” Kent said. “The people in Washington just need to make a decision, then get out of the way.”

Douglas Peters, president of the Fayetteville-Cumberland County Chamber of Commerce, said Fayetteville was accustomed to surviving hardships.

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“We’re a resilient business community,” he said. “We’re used to seeing our friends and family go off to war. We all help each other out.”

Although Hagel’s announcement is welcome news for many civilian workers, business owners are keeping an eye on the possibility of a government default if politicians can’t agree on raising the debt ceiling by Oct. 17.

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“Like we don’t already have enough to worry about,” Hinkamp said.

david.zucchino@latimes.com


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