BRAC studies show mixed results for midstate

wcrenshaw@macon.comOctober 24, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- Across Middle Georgia in the next four years, retired Maj. Gen. Robert McMahon wants to reduce violent crime, improve graduation rates and lower the cost of groceries, among other things.

Not surprisingly, a series of studies to show how Houston County and Middle Georgia compare to other communities with industrial military bases yielded mixed results.

The 21st Century Partnership commissioned the studies in preparation for a potential Base Realignment and Closure Commission in 2017. Most of the results were unveiled to the media Thursday at the partnership’s office in Warner Robins.

The results were posted on a wall in what the partnership has dubbed its BRAC “war room,” but copies were not provided.

“I think what these studies have told us is that there are a lot of great things happening in Middle Georgia today -- and in the host county of Houston County,” said McMahon, president of the 21st Century Partnership. “I think we also know there are some areas of opportunity that we want to work on.”

The studies, done by the Middle Georgia Regional Commission over the past year, compared the area to 12 other communities with industrial military bases.

The studies included crime, education, cost of living, health care, economic impact, innovation, housing, child care, capacity to absorb new missions, transportation, veterans services, air quality, encroachment, capacity to grow, and community cost reduction. A closure panel would be expected to look at those areas when determining which bases to shutter.

One of the glaring areas of concern for Middle Georgia was violent crime. Regionally, the area ranked 10th out of the 13 communities, with the lower ranking meaning more crime. Houston alone ranked sixth, but Houston ranked 10th in property crime. The region overall ranked 11th in property crime. (The region includes Peach, Bibb, Houston and Pulaski counties.)

Although crime might be the most complex of all of the issues, McMahon believes it can be reduced before the next BRAC comes. He said a regional approach is key. As with the other areas, the partnership plans to arrange a meeting with law enforcement leaders in the area to discuss ways to reduce crime.

“Crime and criminals do not know boundaries,” he said. “We’ve got to attack this regionally.”

The region also rated poorly in kindergarten through 12th-grade education, but Houston alone did well. On standardized test scores, Houston students ranked first in math and fourth in science out of the 13 communities. However, Houston ranked near the bottom in overall graduation rate. McMahon said that is a concern, but he suggested that could be related to differences in how the rate is calculated.

In Georgia, he said, if a straight-A student moves into the state as a senior but has to take extra classes to meet the state requirement for graduation and misses the regular graduation date, that counts against the graduation rate.

No. 1 in school access

Although education ranked low regionally, he said, Houston’s showing puts the base in a good position because the great majority of military children go to Houston schools, as well as the children of civilians at the base.

The area ranked No. 1 in access to college and technical school education.

The results did not show the names of the other communities as they ranked in each study area, only where Robins ranked and the results of the others. McMahon said that was because he wanted the focus to be on where the Robins area needs to improve, not how the others rank.

Overall, Houston was a little below the national average in cost of living, with the cost of housing being significantly lower. In other areas, however, McMahon said he was surprised to see that the area did not rank so well, such as the cost of groceries. He said he has no idea why that would be, but it is a cause of concern for him, and he wants to find out.

The study on transportation found the Warner Robins area is the largest urbanized area in the country without a public transit system.

Three of the 15 studies have not been completed, and McMahon said he expects those will be done in about a month.

The conventional wisdom is that in the event of a BRAC, Robins’ biggest competitors will be Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City and Hill Air Force Base in Utah, where the Air Force’s other two depots are located.

McMahon, however, said he doesn’t know that will be the case, which is why the comparison communities include Army, Navy and Marine bases. With the joint nature of bases these days, including a Marine helicopter squadron at Robins, McMahon said he isn’t ruling out any decisions a closure panel might make when it comes to consolidating operations.

“If the Air Force’s three industrial complexes were all in the top five in the Department of Defense, why would you want one of those to close instead of somebody who is at the other end of the spectrum?” he asked.

In the coming months, the partnership will arrange meetings with leaders throughout the region on each of the study topics. A plan of action will be formed to try to improve the areas of concern.

“Knowing this community and the way it responds, I’ve got a good idea there are a variety of these factors that we can make progress on,” McMahon said. “Are we going to to solve every issue between now and 2017? The answer is absolutely not. But what I’d love to be able to do is show where we were in 2013 … and be able to show in 2017 the progress we’ve made in some areas.”

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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