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Military to Invest $5 Billion in Region

One of 40 new barracks buildings under construction on Camp Pendleton.
Alison St John
One of 40 new barracks buildings under construction on Camp Pendleton.

Military to Invest $5 Billion in Region
The U.S. Navy is on a building-boom in San Diego. We'll talk about the strategic decision to beef up security along the Pacific Rim and how San Diego's economy is benefiting.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

DOUG MYRLAND (Guest Host): I'm Doug Myrland, sitting in for Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The U.S. Navy is expanding its presence on the West Coast and, in preparation, is creating a building boom in San Diego. We'll talk about the strategic decision to beef up security along the Pacific Rim and how San Diego's economy might benefit from the increased navy spending on buildings and on infrastructure. Our guests are Alison St John, KPBS senior metro reporter, who's covered the military in San Diego for years. Alison, we're glad to have you with us.


ALISON ST JOHN (Senior Metro Reporter, KPBS): I'm glad to be here, Doug.

MYRLAND: And we're also happy to welcome Captain Steve Wirsching, Commanding Officer of Naval Facilities Engineering Command Southwest. Captain Wirsching, welcome aboard.

CAPTAIN STEVE WIRSCHING (Commanding Officer, Naval Facilities Engineering Command Southwest): Thank you so much.

MYRLAND: Captain, we'll be turning to you in a few minutes but we want to start with Alison so we can set things up and hear a bit of a story that she's been working on for NPR and for KPBS. And, Alison, you've actually done several stories recently on the military's local building boom. How much really is being spent here for construction?

ST JOHN: Well, I think it's significant. It's very significant and, of course, more significant because the economy is faltering at the moment. So the amount of money coming into the county for this initiative is counterintuitive, it's billions. And Captain Wirsching can give us perhaps more of the specifics but what's so interesting about this, I think, is that the military is a really important part of San Diego's identity, always has been, and this is an unprecedented expansion and – of facilities and, to some extent also, of personnel. And it's something that we're not always aware of because the bases are – kind of keep to themselves. You know, we have Camp Pendleton up in the north county and we know we have all these navy facilities around the bay and, of course, we have Miramar but most of all of this construction that's going on right now is happening on the bases so, you know, your average San Diegan may be completely unaware that there's all this activity going on to beef up and improve the bases that we have here in town.


MYRLAND: Now I know you've done some research about what part of San Diego's economy really is contributed by the military and I know that there are many different answers to that question.


MYRLAND: But maybe you could talk about a couple of those answers.

ST JOHN: Well, there was a report put out last year by SD MAC, the San Diego Military Advisory Council, which is a group of people, many of them who are former military who keep an eye on and, you know, advocate basically for the military in San Diego. And they came out with a report that they concluded with looking at all the uniform military personnel, the civilian forces, the retirees, the amount that the Department of Defense spends on this region, that more than a quarter of the jobs in San Diego County depended on military spending. There are some who question that and who say that actually the multipliers have been exaggerated, perhaps over-inflated, that some of the estimates and assumptions are misleading. And we know that it's probably more than 20%, we know that. There's about a 104,000 uniformed personnel, according to this report, here in town. So, you know, at least 10% of the jobs are uniformed military personnel, perhaps one could say. It's a significant segment of the economy and right now, because the fact that the economy is slowing down in some of the other sectors like high tech, tourism, the military is definitely a significant factor.

MYRLAND: So already significant and almost undoubtedly going to become more significant because of this strategic shift.

ST JOHN: That's – I think that would be fair to say. And this is, again, something that I'm not sure that many people in San Diego are really aware of. We live our lives, we see the odd helicopter flying over, you know, we know that there are ships coming in and out of the bay but we're not aware of the fact that there is a strategic shift happening in which the Quadrennial Military Review, three years ago, did say they wanted to move ten percent of the assets over from the east coast to the west coast. There used to be a 50-50 split and now it's going to be 60-40.

MYRLAND: And you recently have done a story about that and you've interviewed someone about that very subject. You want to set that up for us?

ST JOHN: Yes. Martin Murphy is with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment in Washington, D.C., and he's someone who sort of keeps an eye on the navy and strategy. And here's what he says about the expansion of the navy in San Diego.

MARTIN MURPHY (Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, Washington, D.C.): Oh, I think it's a longterm change. I think this move from the Atlantic to the Pacific is something that – it's going to take several years to be realized. It's a true rebalancing of U.S. Naval assets away from the Atlantic to the Pacific. So in that sense, San Diego is well positioned.

ST JOHN: And, in fact, what that means is, a large number of ships arriving in the bay over the next five years or so. From what Admiral Len Herring said when he was in the studio here a few weeks back, he mentioned some figures around 70 ships already in the bay and, you know, it's going to – from what I've heard from Matt Brown, who is the spokesperson for the Southwest Region, about another 20 ships coming in. Matt Brown said he felt like, you know, it depends on which ships you include because some ships come in and out from other bases, and his assessment was that there's about – a little bit under 60 ships in the bay, home ported here in San Diego, and another 20 will come in. So, you know, it looks like it's going to increase by about a third.

MYRLAND: So that's a 30% increase.

ST JOHN: You got it.

MYRLAND: So here we have Captain Wirsching, who is the Commanding Officer, again, of Naval Facilities Engineering Command Southwest, so it's your responsibility to build up the infrastructure to handle this increased number of personnel, right?

WIRSCHING: Right. We do all of the construction and facility support for the navy and Marine Corps in the southwest region so one of our primary responsibilities is the construction piece.

MYRLAND: So what can we expect both in the very near term, say the next six or eight months, in terms of changes and construction and projects? And then what's on the slightly longer calendar for you?

WIRSCHING: Sure. First off, the program that we're supporting right now primarily is in support of a few Marine Corps initiatives. The Commandant of the Marine Corps made a commitment to improve barracks for the marines and that's had a huge impact in all the marine bases across the southwest, Camp Pendleton being one of the major ones. But over the next couple of years we will build 50 or so new barracks for the Marine Corps, about a $1.4 billion investment, and that's really ongoing now. We're in the process of awarding those projects. Many of them are already on the street or just getting ready to start.

MYRLAND: Now Alison did a story awhile ago, talking to somebody at Camp Pendleton, and they said there were as many as 10,000 construction workers up there?

WIRSCHING: There is. It's a huge – If you've been up on Camp Pendleton, you can't go anywhere that there's not something under construction. A huge workload up there.

MYRLAND: And I suppose the logical question following that is, are those workers from the local economy? Is this a direct benefit to San Diego? Or are they coming from lots of other places?

WIRSCHING: No, the vast majority of them are local. Since we award most of our large contracts out of San Diego that support these projects, a good number – most of our construction contractors are local contractors and, you know, most of the workers are local as well.

MYRLAND: So $1.3 billion right away and…

WIRSCHING: Well, $1.4 billion supporting the recapitalization of the barracks. The Marine Corps is also growing. They're growing by I think it's 17,000 folks. Many of those are in the camp – are coming into the Camp Pendleton region. So we are supporting an initiative called the Marine Corps Grow The Force, and that's another – about a billion dollar program…

ST JOHN: Is this 17,000 nationally?


ST JOHN: Rather than locally?

WIRSCHING: Yes, it is.

ST JOHN: Okay. So I was just curious.

WIRSCHING: They – Yeah. I'm sorry. And…

ST JOHN: Yeah, no, good.

WIRSCHING: And over half of them are coming into the southwest region.

ST JOHN: Okay.

WIRSCHING: Again, a lot of them to Camp Pendleton, Twenty Nine Palms, but, again, about a billion dollars worth of investment there. And that's really – the bulk of that work will hit in FY '10, so much of that is – we're still in the planning phases and getting ready to solicit for that work. To put it in perspective, typically we've awarded somewhere around the three to four hundred million dollars worth of construction a year in the region. And last year we started our move up and did about a billion-three. This year, we're projected to award about $2.2 billion dollars worth of construction and we'll peak in next year, in FY '10, at $3.1 billion.

MYRLAND: Now what do you take into account, when you begin to do all of this construction, relating to the adjacent neighborhood? I'm thinking specifically about Coronado and when you increase personnel and you build a lot of things in Coronado then, you know, that puts strain on the streets and the infrastructure in the community. Same thing with the area around Camp Pendleton or Miramar. What responsibilities does the navy take for mitigating impacts in surrounding areas?

WIRSCHING: Well, there is a requirement that we study that and we identify what the impacts are. And then we work to mitigate those, you know, with the local communities.

MYRLAND: Now one of the big things you're talking about is refurbishing barracks. Why do the barracks need to be redone…


MYRLAND: …this way? Is it just to expand them to hold more people or…?

WIRSCHING: No, actually in the Marine Corps case, it's almost exclusively brand new construction. Many of the barracks that they have are in very poor condition and the marines just haven't had the kind of facilities they want to have to take care of their marines so they're building brand new barracks to support them.

MYRLAND: Alison, I'm going to jump back to you and talk a little bit more about the overarching strategic change that's causing this. Why is the navy or the military in general switching more personnel to the west coast than the east coast and focusing on this area and doing this expansion? What's the global perspective that's causing this change in strategy?

ST JOHN: Well, very briefly, what is generally known is that the security concerns are shifting away from sort of the European theater and towards the Pacific Rim, so, you know, China and North Korea, we've heard a lot about in the news at the moment. Having naval forces over on the west coast, 60% of the fleet over on the west coast, means they've got the resources closer to what's likely to be the place where they need to move ships in a hurry. So, for example, we heard about the mine sweepers, the mine countermeasure ships that have come, a small fleet of six ships that have moved from Texas. Now they – It takes them weeks to get anywhere but the idea of securing the waters, coastal waters around countries of concern to the United States to make sure that those waters are safe for warships and U.S. ships. Littoral combat ships, they call them, which littoral is a word for coastal, is becoming an increasingly important part of the fleet. So it's not so much that the security concerns are envisaging ground troops in any of these Pacific Rim countries but the navy and the Air Force are important strategic arms of the American defense system and they're crucial for the Pacific Rim.

MYRLAND: Well, we'd like to invite you to join the conversation as well. Particularly, we'd like to talk about your thoughts about this expansion of navy personnel and infrastructure in San Diego and if you think it's wholly, entirely a good thing or if there are also some concerns that you might have about that. The number to call is 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS, for you to join the conversation. And joining us is Daniel in San Diego. And, Daniel, you're on the program. Welcome.

DANIEL (Caller, San Diego): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I'm a former environmental contractor for the navy, specifically with NAVPAC Southwest. And I'm wondering with all this new construction, is there going to be any provision for LEED certified buildings or for any other environmental concerns during this expansion?

MYRLAND: Captain Wirsching?

WIRSCHING: Absolutely. Starting in fiscal year '09, it's a requirement that all buildings that the navy construct are certified to the LEED Silver level.

MYRLAND: And are you going to be also doing some modifications to the bay? Dredging? With 20 new additional ships.

WIRSCHING: There's no scheduled – Other than the routine, normal schedule of maintenance dredging, there's no further dredging requirements at this point.

MYRLAND: And how do you make that determination? Do you – Is there some point where you'll say, okay, if we get three more ships then we'll have to make radical change?

WIRSCHING: Well, we – Whenever we see a new mission, you know, we look at that mission and determine what the requirements are to support it. And we do that, really, years in advance as we see new things coming.

MYRLAND: Now we've talked a little bit about the kind of unknown number of exactly how many military personnel are in San Diego. You probably have as good an idea of anybody. What kind of figures are you using for your building and planning purposes?

WIRSCHING: I'm not sure I can tell you exactly how many naval personnel. As Alison said, we see a shift. From our perspective, we're really looking at the support requirements to do that, so we're looking out and saying, you know, with the additional forces coming, additional barracks, you know, chow halls, child development centers, so we're really, you know, focused on – more on the impact and how we support that as we look forward into the future.

MYRLAND: But you, in order to look at that impact, you've got to have some sort of a rule of thumb about how many barracks you're going to build for how many people. I mean, are we looking at a – Let's talk in percentage terms, an increase of 20%, 30% over a few years?

WIRSCHING: I couldn't really give you a percentage per se. I would tell you that the navy specifically is looking at a couple of initiatives with respect to barracks and, in addition to the folks coming. Many of our sailors, particularly our junior sailors, their home is on the ship. And so there's an initiative and a desire to get the sailors so that when they're in home port, that they have a place to live that's not on their weapons platform. So that's a big initiative. And then there are just – exist, currently, a deficit of several thousand, you know, barracks that we don’t have so there's – so we're also looking at how we make up for a delta that already exists before we see additional people coming in.

MYRLAND: Okay, well, let's hear from another listener, Eric on Highway 94. Eric, you're on the radio with us.

ERIC (Caller): Thank you. I think this is largely a good thing for the local economy. I think it's going to be a big support to bring these fellows in. They don't have a lot of overhead or a lot of expenses. And while they don't make a ton of money, they spend plenty. They, you know, they don't, again, if they're living in barracks, they don't have to pay rent so they're spending money in the local economy and that's a good thing. And while I'm sure we'll have to face some more congestion coming up from, you know, Chula Vista and possibly out on the 94 and Coronado, I think, all in all right now this is a positive move.

MYRLAND: Well, Eric, thanks for your comment.

ST JOHN: I mean, I think that that is the question, is the – The question is that the – all this money that is being spent is basically for the bases. It's got to be spent on base. I checked this with the folks I spoke with in Camp Pendleton. So I know that at Camp Pendleton they are, for example, widening the road when you get off the freeway on 5, there's often a quite dangerous backup as you're turning off to get into Camp Pendleton, but they're widening the road into the base so that it's got a lot of different lanes. But if that backs up onto the freeway then that's not the military's responsibility, that would then fall to SANDAG and TransNet funds. I asked SANDAG whether they were doing any kinds of expansion on roads around any of the bases perhaps to take into account the fact that there will be thousands more people working on them, and was told not specifically, no. It feels like this is something that hasn't really hit the planning infrastructure mechanism of San Diego and it's hard to really predict because the navy is not that open about how much it's going to be expanding in terms of personnel so it's hard to plan for. So that is a question, I think, that remains in my mind as to whether it will have implications for the infrastructure like the Coronado Bridge, for example. The civilian population will be left holding the bag.

WIRSCHING: Well, we – Like I said, we certainly do environmental planning and study the impacts and work with the local communities to try and identify ways that we can mitigate it. As you said, it may not necessarily be our responsibility but it's certainly our responsibility to work with the local agencies and identify, you know, what we find and what we think our impact will be.

ST JOHN: Right, and the numbers that I've been given are that the number of people increasing around the bay from Matt Brown is between ten and fifteen thousand more people will be working around the bay once this expansion is complete in the next few years, and on Camp Pendleton, possibly up to four thousand more marines up there. Miramar, I haven't heard so I'm not sure that that's expanding in terms of people.

WIRSCHING: It is some but it's much smaller.

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

MYRLAND: Let's take at least one more call in the couple of minutes we have left. Pam in San Diego has a comment and a question. Pam?

PAM (Caller, San Diego): Hi. Yeah. Regarding the relocation of the ships, I just wondered does it also reflect the shift of power in the congress? In other words, years ago the Republicans were controlling the congress and, obviously, we had a Texas president. And now I believe California might have the biggest delegation in congress. So does that also affect it? And I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.

MYRLAND: I'm going to let our reporter speculate about that. I assume Captain Wirsching is not going to be commenting on that kind of national policy so…

ST JOHN: And I'm certainly not here to comment on it either, but I do think that, you know, the question is how – what is leading to this? What are the forces leading to this? And our congressional representatives, while we certainly know that Duncan – that our – that Hunter is very much in favor of maintaining military investment in this region and has worked very hard to do that, and it is an important part of our economy so it's crucial that there is a lot of respect, I think, paid to that contribution to the economy. The thing is that military – that vote that we all took—I think the voters need to take a look at the fact that in, what, three years ago we all took a vote saying, yes, we didn't want to ask the military to think about vacating Miramar for the airport. So that airport vote was a crucial expression of public sentiment that basically said, you know, we don't want to move the airport to Miramar. Now that could have been a multitude of factors like we don't want a bigger airport but it also was like a signal, I think, to the military…


ST JOHN: …that this is an okay place to be.

MYRLAND: But I think that's an excellent question that Pam posed, and, clearly, there are influences at the congressional level that move national policy. But I'm glad you mentioned that vote because several experts have cited that as a very clear signal to the military that the community was welcoming this kind of an expansion.

ST JOHN: I mean, I don't know what you feel, Captain Wirsching, but everyone I talk to in the military says that one of the things they appreciate most is the feeling that they are accepted in San Diego, and that's an important part of the decisions being made.

WIRSCHING: Absolutely true. I think San Diego is renowned for, you know, as a navy friendly town. It's a great place to live and work, and I think it's really one of the places that, you know, many of us really want to be.

MYRLAND: Well, both of you, thank you for joining us. Captain Wirsching, you certainly have your work cut out for you for the next three or four years. I hope they – that you enjoy spending that $5 billion.

WIRSCHING: Well, I do and I – and I didn't even get a chance to tell you about the Recovery Act dollars, which in the Southwest we're very fortunate to get about a billion dollars, 75 construction projects as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

MYRLAND: Which is significantly more money than is going to the city or the county.


MYRLAND: So the biggest portion of that economic recovery money is coming through the military to San Diego.

ST JOHN: And this county, I think, receives more defense – Department of Defense spending than any other county in the nation. So it's something to be aware of when we think about who we are.

MYRLAND: Well, and Alison St John, I know you'll be covering this story for KPBS on an ongoing basis so I'm sure we'll revisit this topic. So, Alison and Captain Steve Wirsching, thank you very much for joining us. We'll be right back after this brief break.