The addition of 11,477 Marines to Eastern North Carolina will pump billions of dollars into to the local economy. There’s just one problem: Bringing highways, schools, police and fire departments and other infrastructure up to speed will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and nobody’s sure where the money will come from. “We’re building this airplane as we fly it,” says Jay Bender, interim director of the federally funded Military Growth Task Force of North Carolina’s Eastern Region. “Unlike other growth communities, which have time to prepare, we have no time.”
That’s because people are arriving faster than expected. Pentagon officials say 9,000 additional Marines have poured in since the buildup began two years ago. Local authorities had expected a gradual increase, with the full number arriving after 2011. North Carolina’s Eastern Region, an economic-development agency, estimates that dependents, support personnel, businesses that cater to the military and others will add about 60,000 people to Craven, Onslow, Jones, Pender, Duplin, Pamlico and Carteret counties. The largest installation — Camp Lejeune in Onslow — has about 50,000 active-duty Marines. Air stations at Cherry Point and New River are adding personnel, too.
Bender, who’s also mayor of Pollocksville in Jones County, says the task force still is assessing what needs to be done. “Obviously, transportation, congestion, public safety and movement between the three bases — Cherry Point, Lejeune and New River — are going to require significant investment.” Though pressure on housing has eased — because of recession-slowed sales, inventory remains high — water and sewer systems will be strained. Improvements to major highways such as U.S. 17, U.S. 70 and N.C. 24 are expected to run into the hundreds of millions, and public safety will be a big expense. Standardizing communication systems will cost about $25 million.
Altogether, more than $3.5 billion in construction will be needed through 2012, Bender says, mostly at Camp Lejeune, where contractors paid by the federal government are building barracks, mess halls, training buildings, ranges and other expansion-related projects. It’s the nonmilitary infrastructure such as schools and roads that’s worrisome. “There’s little if any state money to help, and there’s little feeling among town councils and county commissions to pay for this,” Bender says. “But we don’t see this as a problem. It’s a challenge.”
Touch and go
Landing fighters at night on aircraft carriers might be easier than finding a place to practice it. The latest wrinkle in the 10-year search came last month when U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan told the Navy that Craven County would welcome a practice landing field. “Her thinking,” press secretary David Hoffman says, “was that they already have a lot of military there,” referring to the Marine air base at Cherry Point. Opposition, based on noise and danger of crashes, forced the Navy to abandon its first choice in Washington County (cover story, September 2005). Most of the 100-plus F/A-18 Super Hornets that would use it, which with their crews and maintenance have an annual economic impact of about $2 billion, would remain in Virginia Beach. The Navy has been eyeing three sites in southeastern Virginia and two in northeastern North Carolina — but not Cherry Point. A booster group for the base, Hoffman says, suggested Craven wants the field. That brought a quick rebuttal from County Commissioner Perry Morris, who told Hagan the group “has no authority speaking on behalf of Craven County.”