Protection from military base cuts changes hands

jwilkinson@thestate.comApril 30, 2013 

The task force appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley to protect South Carolina’s military bases from cuts and closures is moving to the Commerce Department from the Comptroller General’s office.

Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom will be replaced as chairman of the S.C. Military Base Task Force by former State Ports Authority chairman William L. “Bill” Bethea Jr. of Beaufort County.

Bethea, a Bluffton attorney, also is one of South Carolina’s three appointees to the Georgia-S.C. Jasper Ocean Terminal board, which is guiding the development of a future port in Jasper. His wife Paula Harper Bethea is the head of the S.C. Education Lottery.

Efforts to reach Bethea Tuesday for comment were unsuccessful. In a statement, Haley did not comment on why she switched the task force to commerce, except to say that she “is excited that Bill Bethea has agreed to carry on General Eckstrom’s exceptional legacy chairing the task force.” The military is an economic engine in South Carolina, contributing some $16 billion a year to the state’s economy.

Eckstrom was appointed by then-Gov. Mark Sanford to lead the task force prior to the 2005 round of base closings and relocations. South Carolina won big in that round, with bases like Fort Jackson being awarded the national drill sergeant school and Shaw Air Force Base landing Third Army headquarters.

However, in recent years some task force members had complained that Eckstrom was slow to react to military budget cuts. He did not call a meeting of the task force in all of 2011, even though the military in 2012 was cut by $487 billion and now faces another $600 billion in cuts due to sequestration. Another round of base closures and relocations (BRAC) could occur as soon as 2015, and some task force members have said S.C. trails other states in preparing for it.

“He didn’t want to get too far out with requesting funding for the communities until he knew what the process was, so we were slow getting started,” said Ike McLeese, chief executive of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce and a member of the task force’s executive committee. “But he did a good job, particularly leading up to the 2005 BRAC.”

More importantly, task force members said, the military is a huge economic engine in the state and should be treated as such. Commerce recently conducted an economic impact study of the military showing that its eight major bases, 56,000 retirees and 900 defense contractor firms pump $15.7 billion annually into the state’s economy.

“I heartily approve of the change,” said task force executive committee member John Payne, a retired Marine colonel who represents Beaufort. “It’s not that we had any problem working with the comptroller general, but the military is one of the largest industries in the state and industry is commerce.”

McLeese added that commerce’s industrial recruiters would be more effective in attracting defense industries to the state and supporting the ones already here.

“Sec. (Bobby) Hitt understands the opportunities there,” he said.

Deputy Commerce Secretary George Patrick, a retired Air Force brigadier general, served as the task force’s executive coordinator until he moved to Commerce in February 2011. Present executive coordinator William “Dutch” Holland, a retired Air Force major general, said he will physically make the switch to commerce soon.

“Our charter for the task force has not changed,” he said. “Mr. Bethea seems energized in support of our bases statewide. I don’t think the task force is going to skip a beat.”

Eckstrom in a statement said that wherever the task force is housed “it’s important that it continue coordinating the efforts of the state’s four military communities – Beaufort, Charleston, Columbia and Sumter. By all means we need to continue our unified approach to accomplish the most for the state overall. That’s how we succeeded in gaining military missions for South Carolina during the last BRAC, and I believe it’s the approach that gives us our best chance for success in the next one.”

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