Central Pa. businesses sweat potential National Guard cuts
When Kevin Zearfoss bought Moose's LZ Bar & Grill in Lebanon County in 2005, the prime location served as a huge part of his businesses plan.
He was right. As the off-base watering hole closest to the Fort Indiantown Gap National Guard Training Center, 60 to 70 percent of the bar's business comes from the military, he said.
That percentage could be in jeopardy. A Department of Defense proposal to cut the National Guard by about 10 percent and realign some of its duties is being debated in Washington, D.C. Locally, that could mean the loss of more than 200 of the 2,200 soldiers at Fort Indiantown Gap, said Maj. Gen. Wesley Craig, the adjunct general of Pennsylvania for the National Guard.
The cuts would start in 2016 and continue through 2019, Craig said.
Now all Zearfoss can do is hope that U.S. lawmakers decide the Army's plan isn't the way to go.
"It's a helpless feeling," he said. "If something extreme happened like this, it would mean major cutbacks for me. I'd have to re-evaluate everything that's going on with the business."
The plan — still being debated — would slash the number of guardsmen from 350,000 to 315,000, Craig said, and move the Apache helicopter force from the National Guard to active Army duty.
Fort Indiantown Gap has eight Apache helicopters, which require a total of 225 to 250 National Guard soldiers, Craig said. That's very close to the 220-soldier, 10 percent estimate of those who could be cut from the facility base.
"Yes, that makes it easy," Craig said. "(Those National Guard personnel) are at definite risk."
The Apache operators are some of Zearfoss' best customers, he said.
"You get close to these guys. It would be sad to see them leave," he said.
It isn't just businesses near Fort Indiantown Gap that could be affected. Craig said every level of construction work at the base is done by local workers from throughout Central Pennsylvania.
Lobar Inc. in Dillsburg built the base's Army National Guard Readiness Center in 2009 and a driver training facility in 2010. The company also built the Army Reserve Center and a guided missile facility at the Letterkenny Army Depot in Franklin County.
Under the proposed cuts, Craig said, those kinds of construction projects likely would dry up, as would smaller renovation projects.
Lobar Inc. started in 1967 and made its name as a construction company for the military, said Lobar Inc. President Frank Eichelberger. While the company has diversified since then with municipal, school and other projects, military construction could be as much as 20 percent of the company's yearly revenue, he said.
"When there are dips in federal funding, we always try to look to our other markets," Eichelberger said. "The construction industry is starting to inch its way back, and we're going to have to take advantage of that. There are always hills and valley with federally funded work, and we have to try and fill that gap (when there is a down time)."
Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Larry Bowman said the chamber is working with officials from Fort Indiantown Gap and the Pennsylvania National Guard to thwart the plan. The chamber sent letters to each member of Pennsylvania's Congressional delegation pushing for support of H.R. 3930, which slows the plan and calls for a full study of the effects it could bring. The bill also would keep the staffing level at 350,000 guardsmen as of Sept. 30. U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina introduced the bill with 167 co-sponsors Jan. 27, and it is now before House Committee on Armed Services.
"They attract a lot of people at the Gap," Bowman said. "The motels, the restaurants, the service industry there and on the highways leading in to the Gap, they're all going to be affected."
The governors of all 50 states have sent letters to Congress urging them not to vote for it.
"It's really a dumb idea," Craig said. "I'm guardedly optimistic that this won't go through, because it's such a bad idea."
But that's up to Congress. Zearfoss, who renovated his business to the tune of about $180,000 in 2008, has to cross his fingers that his business doesn't get sliced up by the government.
"You don't know what to do," he said. "It feels like you're on a freefall, and you just hope when you land, you land on something soft."