Our Towns

Chamber’s Military Affairs Commission Advocates for Reserve Base

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – For too many years, John Rossi says, the “military assets” in the Mahoning Valley and eastern Ohio were “out of sight, out of mind.”

Rossi is president of the Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber Foundation.

That began to change in 2015, he says, when the Regional Chamber launched an initiative to raise the profile of the U.S. Air Force Reserve 910th Airlift Wing at the Youngstown Air Force Reserve Station in Vienna, Camp Ravenna in Portage County and other military installations in the region.

The goal of the initiative, dubbed the Eastern Ohio Military Affairs Commission, is to retain and expand the military presence here. Cleveland has joined the effort.

“There really was no one doing this in eastern Ohio or Northeast Ohio,” Rossi declares.

In its two years, the initiative has won some victories, the Regional Chamber says. Along with the region’s congressional delegation, it helped draft language for the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, which requires the Air Force to spell out its plans to upgrade the C-130 fleet at the airbase.

The commission gathered more than 700 letters of support from companies and Valley organizations it sent to the Department of Defense to promote Camp Ravenna. Defense recently chose Camp Ravenna as one of three finalists to house the $3.6 billion East Coast Ballistic Missile Defense Shield.

The commission approached Gov. Kasich’s administration to explain the potential impact of the project and the work underway that other states are conducting for their finalist sites.

“Without [the Regional Chamber commission] monitoring the selection process, bringing the message to the governor and gaining their attention, we likely wouldn’t have seen any action,” posits Vito Abruzzino, its part-time executive director.

The commission was formed when the future of the Youngstown Air Reserve Station was uncertain.

“The timing was good because right as we were getting started, planes were being peeled back to Little Rock,” Rossi says. “We were losing squadrons and personnel. And naturally, all of those people generate economic impact throughout the region.”

Cutbacks at the Youngstown Air Force Reserve Station had an immediate effect. The economic value of base operations dropped from $238 million in 2014 to less than $200 million today, Abruzzino says.

The development of Eastern Ohio Military Affairs Commission was one recommendation in a report CBD Advisors, a public relations firm based in Beavercreek, Ohio, issued in 2014.

“Their study is the one that said it’s important to set up these local and regional entities to support local resources and bases,” Abruzzino says.

The roots of the commission also spring from the arrival of Col. James Dignan as commander of the air wing in 2013.

Before coming here, Dignan was stationed at McChord Field south of Tacoma, Washington. It had what the Mahoning Valley lacked, Rossi says, a nexus that involved the air reserve station, the business community and the public.“He thought it essential to develop a piece that would promote what the base meant from an economic standpoint.”

(Dignan has since retired from the Air Force Reserves and will become CEO of the Regional Chamber Jan. 1)

About the same time, state government began to recognize the need to form military affairs commissions throughout Ohio. “On the state contracting side, Ohio will ultimately be competing with much better organized states like Alabama, Florida and Texas,” Rossi says.

Ohio’s military communities also are competing against communities in other states to keep their bases open and intact when the next round of BRAC – Base Realignment and Closure – takes place. BRAC is the periodic review conducted by a federal commission that assesses the need for military bases.

After years of executive branch control over base closings and realignments – always a politically contentious issue – Ronald Reagan’s defense secretary, Frank Carlucci, established the Commission on Base Realignment and Closure in 1988.

That same year, Base Closure Act I – authorizing the first base closure commission – became law.

There are three outcomes for a base under BRAC review, Abruzzino says. “It could be that your mission stays the same, it increases, or you lose it.”

In 1995, the Defense Base Closure Commission added the Youngstown Air Reserve Station to its list of bases that could be closed.

When it became apparent in the early 2000s that another BRAC round was imminent, a grassroots effort called Operation: SOAR was organized to keep the base in Vienna Township off the 2005 list of base closings

Still, the Mahoning Valley and eastern Ohio lacked a permanent organization to continually promote and advocate for the area’s military assets.

“SOAR did a great job with a grass-roots public relations effort at that time,” Rossi says. “When CBD [Advisors] came out with their report, they said these communities need a more sustainable long-term model.”

Rossi calls this the “50- year model,” one that looks decades ahead. It’s the type of model that’s guided older, better-organized groups in Dayton, Toledo and Lima for years, he says.

Evolving to anticipate the needs of the military, not just reflexively reacting to the next BRAC round, Rossi says, is something the region needs.

And unlike Operation: SOAR, the commission “should exist in relative perpetuity,” he says. Its funding comes from the Regional Chamber, Western Reserve Port Authority, Trumbull 100, Shanini George Foundation and Trumbull County Community Foundation.

Attracting enough funding to make it a full-time military affairs commission comparable to others in the state and America is one of its goals.

President Trump’s budget for fiscal 2018, still before Congress, proposes another BRAC round in 2021. The Defense Department estimates that 22% of its bases will have excess capacity by 2019. The local military affairs commission is preparing for it, Abruzzino and Rossi say.

“CBD Advisors mulled through the BRAC data in 2005 to see where the strengths and weaknesses were for all of our installations throughout the state,” Rossi says, “and to see how we could contribute to national defense more efficiently and more effectively.”

Any increases in the military budget, as the Trump budget proposes, has the potential for more spending at the reserve station, Abruzzino says.

With a long runway and excess tarmac and apron space, the base is well placed, he says. Its location in the Mahoning Valley with its low cost of living gives it another advantage.

“What has to happen at our small organic level is put ourselves on that short list of bases that can house more missions, more aircraft,” he says.

Editor’s Note: This story was published in the MidJune issue of The Business Journal as part of our Air Station Salute. Leading up to the Thunder Over the Valley air show, we’ll be sharing stories from Youngstown Air Reserve Station. To purchase a copy of our Air Station Salute issue, click here.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.