Should Belleville pay consultants $25K to help keep Scott open?

News-DemocratMarch 16, 2014 

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A sign welcomes visitors through the Belleville Gate entrance at Scott Air Force Base.

SSGT CHAD R. GANN, USAF — Chad R. Gann, USAF

— The Belleville City Council will vote at a meeting on Monday whether to pledge $25,000 to help pay for consultants working to keep Scott Air Force Base open.

If approved, the city will give $5,000 a year for the next five years to Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois.

The council meets at 7 p.m. at City Hall, 101 S. Illinois St.

The metro-east economic development group hired Washington, D.C.-based government relations firm, Smith Dawson & Andrews, last year as part of its $3.2 million campaign to protect and grow the military base.

Former U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello and retired Air Force Gen. Duncan McNabb are working with the firm.

The consultants are preparing for the next round of assessments by the Base Realignment and Closure commission, which decides what bases to keep open, close or consolidate.

Mayor Mark Eckert made a pitch to city leaders at a Finance Committee meeting when aldermen discussed the 2014-15 budget.

The Leadership Council led a successful campaign in 1995 to preserve the base when the metro-east was "very, very vulnerable to having the base closed," Eckert said.

Eckert said the Leadership Council did not ask for a specific amount but wants a multi-year commitment from municipalities.

Belleville's contribution this year would come out of its marketing budget, Eckert said.

"The impact of losing the economic engine that is Scott Air Force Base would be unimaginable," Eckert said.

Still, at least one alderwoman was not convinced.

Belleville Ward 2 Alderwoman Melinda Hult said her experience as a military family leads her to believe that using "lobbyists" will not be effective in swaying BRAC results.

"BRAC is based on a formula," Hult said. "It's based on facts, not influence."

In response to Hult's statement, Ellen Krohne, executive director of the economic development group, concurred that BRAC decisions are based on a known process, but there are also categories of the process that benefit from the metro-east being proactive and using the task force and consultants.

For instance, Krohne said: "We can do everything possible in community support. If there's any issue at Scott Air Force Base, we make sure we help resolve that issue. And, if we uncover any infrastructure needs, and we help to make that happen, it will give us a better outcome from BRAC."

The metro-east will have a chance to show its love for the base on March 21 when Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh is scheduled to meet base and community leaders to assess local support.

"I think the love of Scott Air Force Base is such an important part of our culture and the fabric of our community, that it is an important thing we can demonstrate while he is here," Krohne said.

Krohne hopes to conclude the fundraising campaign in the next few months.

So far, the group raised $1.41 million of the $3.2 million goal, Krohne said.

Recent donations include $100,000 from the Illinois Realtors Association, and $50,000 each from the Greater Gateway Association of Realtors and the Realtor Association of Southwestern Illinois.

The St. Clair and Madison County Boards each have given $50,000 lump sum payments to the campaign.

And, the city of Troy approved a one-time payment of $2,500 in September.

Troy Mayor Allen Adomite said the council voted unanimously to use video gaming revenue for the cause and will review the donation amount annually.

"We informally earmarked that money to put toward veteran and military type uses," Adomite said. "Scott Air Force Base is a huge employer in our region, and it has a huge impact on citizens here in Troy. We want to see Scott improve and not decrease in what they're doing here, so we went ahead and tried to contribute."

According to a 2011 HeartLands Conservancy study, the base has an annual impact on the region of more than $3 billion and more than 136,399 are affected economically by the base. That includes active duty, civilian, military retirees, indirect jobs and dependents.

The study states that of those receiving payroll directly or indirectly from the base, 66 percent live in Illinois and 34 percent in Missouri. More than 50 percent of the payroll dollars flow in St. Clair County, with the majority of recipients in Belleville and O'Fallon.

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 618-239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BNDJLee.

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