May 17, 2013
By Mike Fitzgerald
BELLEVILLE — The future of Scott Air Force Base won't be on the line for at least two more years -- if that.
But already state and local leaders are preparing a game plan to shield Scott -- the region's economic mainstay and biggest employer -- from the brunt of $500 billion in spending cuts the Pentagon faces in the decade ahead.
That's why Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon visited Southwestern Illinois College on Friday to meet with nearly 50 metro-east leaders, residents and base representatives. The goal of Simon's "listening post" visit: to discuss a wide range of quality-of-life issues, from the reputation of local schools to the business climate, to provide the foundation for a report on the region's strengths and weaknesses.
In turn, this report will form the basis for state strategies to protect Scott from Pentagon and congressional budget-cutters.
The two-hour session Friday afternoon began with an anonymous survey of attendees' views on the most serious problems facing the area, as well as their views on the condition of public infrastructure, the environment, health care and local schools.
Up next were break-out sessions, during which five facilitators took turns visiting tables where participants sat.
In a session about the region's environment, for instance, moderator Christopher Merrett asked the people at his table about the things they'd talk about if asked to promote the region.
"We're trying to figure out what are the strengths of this area," Merrett said.
That discussion quickly pivoted to a comparison of economic opportunities in the region compared those found on the east and west coasts.
"You kind of top out at a certain level in St. Louis," retired Air Force Col. Mike Hornitschek, Scott's former base commander.
Frank Miles, the business development manager of America's Central Port District in Granite City, said the quality of metro-east schools are cited as a selling point for the area.
But because of the perceived expense of local property taxes, "That's also the biggest negative," Miles said. "But property taxes pay for these great schools."
Darcy Benway, the superintendent of O'Fallon High School District 203, responded by saying that people get the wrong idea about the total amount they pay in taxes because state taxes are so low.
"That's the biggest myth going around, and schools are getting a black eye from it," Benway said.
At the end of the two-hour session, Miles reminded session participants of the $500 billion in budget cuts facing the Defense Department. And even though "the military loves" the metro-east, "We need to get to work," Miles said. "And we need to get to work now."
Friday's listening post was the first of three that are planned for this year. A listening post session will also take place for the communities around Illinois' other two major military installations: the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, near Chicago; and the Rock Island Arsenal, near Rock Island.
Feedback from the three sessions will be used to write a combined report that will help determine a strategy for protecting the state's three major military bases, Simon said.
"I think some of the things that will come will be fed back to state agencies, where they can take some action on what's going on," said Simon, the chairwoman of the state's Interagency Military Base Support and Economic Development Committee.
Based on what she heard Friday, Simon said the biggest issues facing Scott and the surrounding community center on employment for family members of military personnel stationed at Scott.
"I think there is a general consensus that the schools are good, but that we can still do better," she said.