Economy a concern as fort nears closure

FMERPA officials seek input from federal government

BY DANIEL HOWLEY Staff Writer

Local officials are teaming up with the federal government to come up with a plan to help area towns better cope with the closure of Fort Monmouth in light of the nation’s economic downturn.

Plans for the collaboration could include the utilization of a government program that will help area towns directly affected by the fort’s closure come up with a strategy to lessen the impact on their economies.

Officials are also discussing the formation of a task force to study how area businesses that thrive on business generated by the fort can survive following its closure.

At a Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Planning Authority (FMERPA) meeting held in Eatontown on Feb. 18, authority members prodded officials with the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) for suggestions that could help area towns combat the one-two punch of the fort’s closure and Wall Street’s woes on local economies.

“My concern is the economic impact,” Eatontown Mayor and FMERPA member Gerald Tarantolo said at the meeting. “When we first became aware that Fort Monmouth was going to be closed, we did an economic study to determine the impact that the closing of [the fort] will have on this area.”

According to Tarantolo, the study revealed that as a result of the fort’s closure, the fort’s three host towns, Eatontown, Oceanport and Tinton Falls, would be dealt an unemployment rate double the national average.

“Right now we are looking at a 7.5 percent [national unemployment rate], so that would be devastating for this area to undergo a 15 percent unemployment rate.”

Frank Barton, the project manager with the DOD’s Office of Economic Adjustment (OEA), explained at the meeting that towns affected by fort closures nationwide are able to apply for federal assistance through a DOD program used to refocus local economies on new sources of income, rather than on incomes at the forts.

The program, known as a Defense Industry Adjustment Program, will allow Fort Monmouth’s three host towns to begin weaning themselves off the fort’s income, according to Barton.

“We will provide financial assistance to communities to put together a diversification strategy,” Barton said.

“That is, in many communities, they become very dependent on the military dollar,” Barton said, adding that the Defense Industry Adjustment Program gives towns a place to go in order to begin diversifying themselves economically.

While the program will assist the fort towns in readjusting their economies, Oceanport Mayor Michael Mahon, questioned if it will provide funding to local businesses located outside the fort’s walls that will be directly impacted by the fort’s closure.

“How does the defense industry adjustment apply to the coffee shops that will no longer have the lunch crowd, or the restaurants that won’t have those business meetings?” Mahon asked, adding that those businesses will begin to see an impact from the fort’s closure on day one.

According to Barton, the program will be unable to assist private entities, such as the local coffee shops, directly, but can help local governments search for new industries that may want to relocate to the area.

Barton suggested that the fort’s host towns form a committee tasked with restoring the economy outside of the fort’s walls following its closure, as FMERPA’s main focus is the redevelopment of the fort property.

In addition to the OEA’s diversification program, Tarantolo suggested having the government move some of its facilities from throughout the country to the fort’s host communities in order to help replace jobs lost by its closure.

Barton said that such a move would be considered favoritism on the part of the federal government, and as there are several military installations throughout the country closing as a result of the government’s Base Realignment and Closure program, it would be unfair to other host communities.

Following the Feb. 18 meeting, FMERPA Executive Director Frank Cosentino explained that the OEA’s diversification program has been successfully applied to other military installation closures and could be successful for the Fort Monmouth region.

“Apparently [the program] has been successful elsewhere, at Witchitaw Falls, Texas, but we will be working closely with Mr. Barton and the mayors to cull from this what may be useful,” Cosentino said.

“I thought that the mayors were extremely correct in their concern for the little sandwich shops outside the fort,” Cosentino said. “These are the people that are really going to be hurt potentially with the closure and the economic slowdown.”

Tarantolo also raised questions about whether or not the fort’s closure and the FMERPA redevelopment plan will stay on schedule in light of the national and global recession.

“Clearly, if the economy continues to spiral down, this plan is an economic plan and it will be impacted just as the rest of the economy is impacted,” Cosentino said. “The army is scheduled to leave by Sept. 2011. No one is certain what will happen in the next six months.”

He continued, “So it is incumbent upon us to do the very best planning and marketing moving forward that we can do and then it will be a matter of what funding is available to prospective purchasers of the property.

“We are not magicians,” Cosentino said. “We are professionals and we recognize what we have here. We also recognized the enormity of the task before the economic situations.”

Prior to the Feb. 18 meeting, Mahon wrote a letter to President Barack Obama seeking that the fort remain open.

“I just want to commend Mayor Mahon,” Tarantolo said. “He wrote a very gutsy letter to President Obama. I thought that was a pretty good move on your part.

“I think that it’s always been on the minds of many people, especially with all of the economic noise that’s been generated as a result of Fort Monmouth’s moving to Aberdeen, Maryland and the rational based on the economic justifications, and I think you kind of covered that in a general way in the letter,” Tarantolo said.

A FMERPA meeting was scheduled to be held on March 18 at the Oceanport Municipal Building. For more information on FMERPA, visit www.nj.gov/fmerpa/.

Contact Daniel Howley at

dhowley@gmnews.com