The Army decision to eliminate a 3,500-soldier brigade combat team at Fort Drum should remind the north country community that our economy is very fragile. The news came the same week as the state Department of Labor reported the north country distinguished itself by having four of the five worst unemployment rates in New York.
Concern about the Army decision across the community is amplified because the north country economy is not diversified and St. Lawrence and Lewis counties are about to impose higher sales taxes on those fortunate enough to have jobs.
The actual loss of the brigade is not dire since it is mitigated by the Army decision to strengthen the remaining two combat teams by about 1,000 soldiers apiece.
The decision provides the community four years to absorb restructuring. The immediate impact is tempered by the simple fact that the reduction in the size of the Army is because war in Iraq does not involve American troops and that we are withdrawing soldiers from Afghanistan. Thus, soldiers assigned to Fort Drum will not face lengthy overseas deployments unless the country is forced to commit troops to stabilize another part of a volatile world that seems more and more uneasy.
Without the constant expectation that deployments to war zones are imminent, stress on soldiers and families diminishes. Soldiers assigned to Drum, knowing they would immediately deploy many times, would leave their families at the previous posting. Now those soldiers will be more likely to move their families to Drum, reducing the number of unaccompanied soldiers and increasing the demand for housing.
The constant waves of deployments have eased the way for the community and the Army to accommodate the housing needs of the military. When soldiers are overseas, the demand for housing is less. Once the entire division even a slightly smaller division is home at Drum, there will be an inadequate supply of housing. The new housing being built around the city is desperately needed to satisfy the demand for quality that is not available in the older housing stock, which is in desperate need of rehabilitation.
No one should lose sight of the fact that the vacancy rate in the rental market is extremely low despite the thousands of soldiers deployed in Afghanistan. Rental costs are still rising dramatically as demand exceeds the supply. The market is dominated by landlords who keep raising rents. Longtime residents of the county have to cope with steadily higher prices for housing when the unemployment rate is 9.6 percent.
What the community needs to focus on is not that the 10th Mountain Division will be one brigade weaker, but that the modest degree of stress caused by the restructuring is far outweighed by our inability to provide an adequate platform for private-party investment. The Army decision should remind government leaders from Albany to Watertown to Lowville to Canton that the north country is being mauled by a weak economy that is dependent almost solely upon government. We have welcomed the Army and the federal investment since 1985. And we have become dependent upon that ever-growing flow of money. Now is the time to wake up and start building an economy that diversifies as well as leverages those federal investments.
The agencies in the three counties responsible for attracting private investment have not done the job. The only visible and substantial activity has been efforts to provide housing. Fortunately the state has led the way in providing financial help to build housing. The governor has provided a blueprint for expansion using excess state university system property as incubators for new and creative job-producing business.
The north country will not prosper until it quits looking to the past for the solutions for tomorrow. We must vigorously defend our government assets such as Fort Drum, the prisons and the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center. But those entities cannot be the center of our economic universe. The counties, their elected legislators and economic developers must attract private investments to return jobs and opportunity to the north country.
What needs to be done:
■ Attract an adequate supply of housing to bring the housing market into balance to stabilize rents.
■ Consolidate schools so every north country student has the opportunity for a quality education that is required to succeed in the job market.
■ Achieve more cooperation among the hospitals to assure that the north country has a medical system that does not require residents to travel to Burlington or Syracuse for anything less than advanced care.
■ Build an environment that encourages business expansion and diversification such as additional milk manufacturing facilities to take advantage of the vast supplies of milk our farmers produce, or our abundant forests.
■ Leverage the intelligence that surrounds the north countrys colleges and universities into new businesses.
The north country has distinguished itself by supporting the soldiers and families of the Armys most-deployed unit during Americas 12 years of war. As we welcome all the troops home, we will cope with a few fewer than we hoped for but we will have learned a lesson that we need to take care of our community by providing a diversified source of economic prosperity that is resilient enough to persevere when government changes directions.