Everything about Anniston Army Depot’s good news this week is splendid. Except, of course, this:
Calhoun County’s largest employer is an industrial facility that depends on long-range Army decisions, which signals that more work remains to better insulate the county from the ebbs and flows of work orders, personnel shifts and military politics in Washington.
That doesn’t diminish the depot’s prominence. Without the depot, Calhoun County’s unemployment rate would skyrocket. Without the depot, Calhoun County would become an even smaller shell of itself before the closure of Fort McClellan. Without the depot, we would frown over what would happen to Calhoun County’s economy, its financial survival, its future.
This week’s good news is exactly that -- good news that may bring job growth to Bynum. The Army’s selection of Anniston’s depot as the primary repair facility for its newest armored vehicle is no small matter.
But consider these caveats:
-- Army estimates say additional jobs at the depot may be 10 years away, or more.
-- Repair work on the new vehicles, the Army Multipurpose Vehicle, or AMPV, won’t begin “until the late ’20s,” says Nathan Hill, military liaison for the Calhoun County Economic Development Council.
-- Hill says the biggest impact of this week’s announcement isn’t the potential for new jobs, but instead it may be the protection of existing ones.
That may not be cold water poured over our heads, but it does strengthen the argument that Calhoun County’s dependance on its largest employer to provide stable jobs for several thousand people is a risky bet. What the Army gives, the Army can take away, and often does.
If America’s long wars in the Middle East and Asia slow, or end, does that melt the need for workers to repair Army vehicles?
If America’s political climate changes in 2020 or 2024 -- a new president, a new focus on reduced military spending -- does Anniston’s depot become collateral damage?
Calhoun County knows this drill. The Army is fickle, a massive bureaucratic machine whose priorities and leadership shift. And our experience with Fort McClellan makes us veterans of this never-ending effort to prove our value to the Pentagon. Today’s reality is only a reality today. Tomorrow may be different. Guarantees don’t exist.
Our realistic vision for Calhoun County is unchanged. It centers on McClellan as a true economic engine for northeast Alabama -- a vision started but not finished. It includes a workforce that is better educated and better trained. It includes less of a reliance on low-wage, low-skilled retail jobs that boost employment statistics but not workers’ bank accounts. It requires political leadership that dreams big and shoots high instead of accepting mediocrity. And it must address the economic-opportunity deserts in the poorest parts of Anniston, particularly its western and southern neighborhoods.
Anniston Army Depot’s good news this week is nothing to ignore. Cheer with us, please. But let’s also seek an economic future not so dependent on war and Army decisions.