WATERTOWN — The first line of defense in keeping Fort Drum strong in the north country and making its relevance known here and beyond has been hobbled the past five years.

The elimination of state funding for Advocate Drum means it’s not firing on all cylinders, jeopardizing what many view in some ways as the insurance policy for the north country’s economy. Advocate Drum protects and enhances Fort Drum’s military value while sustaining and leveraging its economic and cultural significance.

In 2018, New York cut Military Base Retention funds for six communities, including funding that went to sustain Advocate Drum, which was awarded between $200,000 and $300,000 every other year. Advocate Drum is also funded by Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties and by individual and corporate membership fees. Membership dues are budgeted at $74,000, with $101,000 in total support from the three counties. Jefferson and Lewis Counties each contribute $50,000 and St. Lawrence County contributes $1,000.

Advocate Drum hasn’t had an executive director since 2019. It’s now powered by a board of volunteers and a paid office administrative assistant.

“If we don’t have funding for Advocate Drum, we remain as we are, which is extremely flat-footed,” said immediate past Advocate Drum board chairman Thomas H. Carman. “We haven’t had an executive director for four years now. We limped through the COVID years. But if we were having another stationing decision coming up in the near-term, it would be a group of volunteers trying to do our day jobs and trying to do that as well.”

The 2023 budget for Advocate Drum is $259,400. Its operating budget is $167,000 (without an executive director) with just over $87,000 budgeted for task force activities such as regional marketing, developing an economic impact model, etcetera.

Advocate Drum fighting to regain key funding

In November 2017, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team at Fort Drum demonstrated to the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization (now Advocate Drum), which met on base, new cold-weather combat gear. Watertown Daily Times

In talking to Advocate Drum board members, there’s a sense that Fort Drum, home of the 10th Mountain Division, the Army’s most deployed division since 1992, should not be taken for granted. The organization has spent years of sweat equity fighting for the base. Fort Drum didn’t just magically appear here one day, revolutionizing the north country economy and becoming the largest “single site” employer in New York. It took great effort to bring the base here, they say, and that effort must be sustained.

Forces rallied

Through the years, Advocate Drum has been the local vanguard when in Washington, D.C., a Base Realignment and Closure process was initialized, carefully scrutinizing military bases for closure. But a BRAC is just one entity that Advocate Drum rallies its forces against. And when it sees an opportunity that could potentially benefit the base, those advocacy forces are again rallied.

“There’s a lot of worthwhile causes out there,” said Advocate Drum board chairman David J. Zembiec, who is also CEO of Jefferson County Economic Development. “I’m not saying ours is any better than others. But Fort Drum impacts everything. We’re not serving any special population. If you lose Fort Drum, the impact on the economy is going to affect the business community, education, health care and the nonprofit sector when you look at a lot of the fundraising that goes forth. A lot of our businesses would not be able to afford a lot of our community causes if they were impacted by the loss of Fort Drum.”

Advocate Drum fighting to regain key funding

Indirect and induced jobs impact of Fort Drum by industry in the Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence County region for fiscal year 2021. Courtesy of EBP/Advocate Drum

Some of the economic impact powered by Fort Drum is obvious — from pickup trucks sold to burgers bought. Other signs aren’t so obvious, or maybe taken for granted. For example, the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency obtained a $9 million Department of Defense grant for the YMCA’s new $27.5 million downtown Community and Aquatic Center under construction at 146 Arsenal St. Meanwhile, underground, the Development Authority of the North Country’s 11-mile Watertown-to-Fort Drum water line, completed in 1991, has the capacity to deliver up to 3 million gallons of water per day from the city of Watertown’s water treatment plant to Fort Drum. Federal Impact Aid provides reimbursement to school districts.

Advocate Drum fighting to regain key funding

Indirect and induced jobs impact of Fort Drum by occupation in the Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence County region for fiscal year 2021. Courtesy of EBP/Advocate Drum

“Without Fort Drum and the soldiers and families of the 10th Mountain Division in our community, the new downtown YMCA Community and Aquatic Center could never have been possible,” said Denise K. Young, CEO of the Watertown Family YMCA.

Ms. Young said the project becoming real is about more than the DOD funding. It’s also made possible by “the talented spouses we employ and the many, many children and adults who come to Fort Drum and become part of our YMCA family.”

Construction on the center is scheduled to end in mid-November.

“I can’t imagine our Y or our community without the soldiers and families of the 10th,” Ms. Young said. “We’re honored to serve those who serve our country.”

The top five indirect and induced job sectors related to the base that boost the local economy are health and social services, education services, wholesale trade, retail trade and food/accommodations.

The base is also a source of civilian labor, a key element as the country faces a worker shortage.

“We have about 15% staff either Fort Drum spouses or dependents,” said Mr. Carman, who is also president and CEO of Samaritan Medical Center. “I don’t know what I’d do without them. It’s not just us. It’s a great work force. They’re motivated, well-trained and well educated. We’d really be in a tough bind without them.”

Mr. Zembiec said one of the arguments that JCED made to Convalt Energy and its plans for a massive solar panel manufacturing plant near the Watertown International Airport in the town of Hounsfield is the local workforce. The plant is under construction.

“Our challenge up to now has been having the jobs to keep them here and at the salaries they want, to keep them here,” Mr. Zembiec said of those workers related to the post. “But hopefully with things like the panel manufacturing and other developments happening now, we’re creating those jobs to keep those folks here.”

Advocate Drum fighting to regain key funding

One lane of traffic passes the “Fort Drum connector” road on Interstate 81 near exit 48 in August 2012. The road, I-781, which Advocate Drum lobbied to secure funding for, opened in 2013. Watertown Daily Times

Meanwhile, unions like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers view Fort Drum as integral in sustaining its workforce. Travis Flint, business manager for IBEW Local 910, Watertown, and Alan Marzullo, business manager for IBEW Local 43, Clay, Onondaga County, wrote letters to state lawmakers to express the need for the continuation of Military Base Retention Funds be dedicated again to Advocate Drum.

“IBEW members perform about 88% of the electrical work done on Fort Drum and we want to continue having our members out there working,” Mr. Flint said.

IBEW also participates in the state’s Helmets to Hardhats program, rolled out nationally in 2003 to assist post-9/11 veterans transition into careers in building trades. New York was one of the original launch sites for the program. Due to it, over 3,000 veterans in New York have started construction careers. Advocate Drum assists IBEW and others in those recruitment efforts.

A growing impact

Mr. Zembiec said that Advocate Drum is receiving data from Fort Drum to determine the base’s economic impact for 2022, and those numbers could be ready in early spring. Data released last spring by Fort Drum for fiscal year 2021, ending Sept. 30, 2021, showed that the base’s direct economic impact on Northern New York grew 4.6% over the previous fiscal year. The base reported that $1.53 billion was leveraged in the 2021 fiscal year, with the greatest impact made through paychecks. In 2021, the Fort Drum community was comprised of 15,656 soldiers and 15,832 family members — 29.8% of Jefferson County’s population.

When “multipliers” are factored, Advocate Drum’s 2021 data shows that Fort Drum plays a bigger role in the region’s economy, with the base’s economic impact nearing $1.96 billion, or a 7% increase from the previous year. The reported $1.53 billion figure included $267.7 million in goods and services purchased directly from businesses in Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties. Advocate Drum also noted that the recirculation of Fort Drum spending and payroll through the economy created $420.9 million in additional business sales that can be added to the installation’s 2021 $1.53 billion figure.

The base, Mr. Zembiec said, is “intertwined” with the “whole community” and the “whole economy.”

“It’s a great plus to us, but also a big vulnerability because we rely so heavily on Fort Drum,” he said. “It’s the elephant in the room, and there’s no ignoring that.”

Advocate’s origins

It’s been nearly four decades since the Fort Drum Steering Council was created in 1985 following the decision by the Department of Defense in September 1984 that the 10th Mountain Division would be reactivated as a “light infantry” unit.

Advocate Drum fighting to regain key funding

North Country community members attend a Fort Drum listening session in March 2015 at Jefferson Community College. Watertown Daily Times

The Steering Council, funded by the federal Office of Economic Adjustment (now called the Office for Local Defense Community Cooperation) and sponsoring local agencies, helped to build the north country’s knowledge base regarding the Army’s decision to station the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum. As local leaders and elected officials began to understand the impact, community development plans were addressed.

Funding provisions for the Steering Council expired in 1990. In its wake came the creation of the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization, designed to carry on the council’s mission as a volunteer membership organization. FDRLO was rebranded as Advocate Drum in 2018 to better reflect its mission. Its last executive director, Edward W. “Fritz” Keel resigned from his job in the summer of 2019 after he told the board he had accepted a job offer and his family was relocating to Texas.

In 2018, the last time that the state funded Military Base Retention, six communities received a total appropriation of $5 million. The funding program began when former state Sen. James W. Wright helped to arrange it, and continued with the support of Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, who last year decided not to seek reelection. State Senate Minority Leader Robert G. Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, has advocated for the funds, noting that from 2012 to 2018, the Senate Republican Conference had provided aid through the Military Base Retention Fund and Research program within the Urban Development Corp.

During a March 2022 press conference, Sen. Ortt said that since Democrats took the majority in the Senate, no funding has been provided. In a letter to Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul last year, Sen. Ortt requested $5 million in base retention funds for that year’s enacted budget “to preserve and create jobs and strengthen our state’s emergency response capabilities.”

Last month, Gov. Hochul announced highlights of her 2024 executive budget. Military Base Retention funding was again absent. Lawmakers face an April 1 deadline to approve the state budget.

Advocate Drum board member Mr. Wright, who held the 48th Senate District seat from 1992 to 2007, said that other states have agencies committed to the military. Those efforts are focused on keeping bases and often compete against New York for projects.

“They fund them in the state budget,” said Mr. Wright, county administrator of Oswego County from 1979 to 1987 and administrator of Jefferson County from 1987 to 1992. “New York is different. I’ve never described it as a pro-defense state. In turn, there’s no designated agency. When it hits the fan for something like a BRAC round, they immediately take an agency and designate somebody. But that’s never their full-time purpose, to take care of the military in New York State. We happen to believe there should be a longer term commitment and we’re willing to serve in that capacity.”

Experimental approach

The Department of Defense sought something different as the Fort Drum expansion was plotted. Instead of things like health care and education having sites such as hospitals and schools on base, such services would be found in the community.

Advocate Drum fighting to regain key funding

Hundreds of attendees are greeted by ladder trucks and flags on the way into the Fort Drum rally in March 2015 at Jefferson Community College. Watertown Daily Times

“Because of those two things, it’s a much more integrated community,” Mr. Carman said.

“They were all experiments in trying to reduce the defense expenditure in the Reagan administration,” said Mr. Wright, who was also executive director of the Development Authority of the North Country, a position he held for 11 years until his retirement in 2020.

“The intent was to demonstrate that the community could offset many of these federal expenditures seen at other locations,” Mr. Wright said. “They are actually now looking at our health care model as becoming the national model. It has worked so well for the installation, as well as for the community.”

Mr. Carman said that “officially,” there are five hospitals within a 40-mile radius of Fort Drum. Samaritan, he said, provides about 95% of the health care sought by Fort Drum soldiers and dependents. As an example of that care, Mr. Carman said that 47% of patients at the Samaritan obstetric’s unit (childbirth and care of women giving birth) involved “military babies” — either soldiers or their dependents.

“We’re fortunate to have a level 2 neonatal intensive care unit right here in the north country,” Mr. Carman said. “If I’ve got one-half of the babies, I’m not sure we can support that.”

Mr. Carman shared other Samaritan data related to the base: 28% of pediatric visits involve military children and 26% of patients at the hospital’s inpatient mental health unit are soldiers or dependents.

Meanwhile, soldiers and their dependents make up 20% of the visits to the Samaritan emergency room.

“That is a significant amount of business that we do with Fort Drum because of that model,” Mr. Carman said.

The Fort Drum model, with hospitals off base, has additional benefits, such as the Samaritan workforce, Mr. Carman explained.

“That means we have a medical staff of over 200, with 40 specialty services represented,” he said. “You start to look at specialties that require a certain population and you shrink that, it can be devastating. It hurts not only Fort Drum, but it hurts us as a community. That’s why we’re so adamant to make sure we have an organization that is ready and prepared to fight for Fort Drum at every turn that we have to.”

An ‘Assessment’

The Army occasionally reassesses its bases. For example, the Army in 2015 released a “Supplemental Programmatic Environmental Assessment for Army 2020 Force Structure Realignment.”

Fort Drum was one of more than two dozen installations across the country that were researched.

Advocate Drum fighting to regain key funding

North County community members rally for Fort Drum in March 2015 at Jefferson Community College. The Army was looking to cut up to 16,000 personnel from Fort Drum under its Supplemental Programmatic Environmental Assessment done that year. Only 28 jobs were cut. Watertown Daily Times

The worst-case scenario of defense cuts included the slashing of 16,000 soldier and civilian positions on post by 2020, which would have caused a $1.6 billion economic catastrophe across the region. Mr. Carman said that Samaritan looked at the numbers in such a worst-case scenario. It would decrease Samaritan’s net revenue about 18% and reduce the workforce about 10%. “And after that, we would have a negative margin of $9 million for the next year.”

Advocate Drum lobbied against the PEA, which included a community petition drive. Advocate Drum did a deep dive into the assessment plan — from health care to noise issues.

“Those kind of assessments are done by somebody in a central office somewhere,” Mr. Zembiec said. “But there were a number of errors, so the community had a chance to respond.”

Mr. Zembiec displayed two binders, each bulging with about 4 inches of paperwork.

“These two documents are what we put together, with a lot of input from board members volunteering their time,” he said.

Mr. Zembiec recalled a visit related to the PEA when Department of Defense officials came to visit Fort Drum and the community.

Advocate Drum had a message for those officials regarding the PEA:

“The theme was, ‘Don’t do this to yourself,’” Mr. Zembiec said. “The Army can’t afford to give up what this community brings. Yes, your assessment may say Fort Drum doesn’t have an on-post school or on-post hospital, but what we have by integrating that into the community as it did when Fort Drum was expanded, they don’t have to worry about maintaining the cost of those two institutions. And three, instead of a civilian community and a military community, you’ve got a combined critical mass of population that can attract a greater variety of medical specialists and offset what a smaller community couldn’t do by itself.’”

BRAC rounds

The worst-case scenario of that 2015 PEA study was not realized. Fort Drum lost 28 jobs because of the assessment. But there were previous initiatives that Advocate Drum has traditionally rallied its forces against, led by an executive director.

Base Realignment and Closure is the congressionally authorized process the Department of Defense used to reorganize its base structure to more efficiently and effectively support U.S. forces, increase operational readiness, facilitate new ways of doing business and to save taxpayer money. BRAC commissions were enabled in 1988, 1991, 1993, 1995 and 2005. (Fort Drum was removed from the 1993 list before the round officially began after local efforts were mobilized.)

Advocate Drum fighting to regain key funding

From left, Col. Gary A. Rosenberg, John P. McLaurin III and Maj. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend listen to speakers at a Fort Drum listening session at Jefferson Community College in March 2015. “After sitting here listening to all of you for three hours, you’ve made me so proud, I can’t be impartial, I just can’t,” Gen. Townsend told the crowd. “So Maj. Gen. Steve Townsend, but also citizen Steve Townsend, believes that Fort Drum and the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum is not only good for the north country and New York, as you all have said so well, but it is good for our Army and America.” Watertown Daily Times

The latest BRAC round, in 2005, was a bit different. The Secretary of Defense identified three goals for BRAC in that study, which the U.S. Government Accountability Office said was “intended to (1) transform the military, (2) foster jointness, and (3) reduce excess infrastructure to produce savings.” The accountability office said such an approach was needed because the Department of Defense “has faced long-term challenges in managing and halting degradation of its portfolio of facilities and reducing unneeded infrastructure to free up funds to better maintain the facilities it still uses and to meet other needs.”

“We haven’t heard about BRAC in a while,” Mr. Carman said. “But Congress could decide to reallocate funds, and if they do, what happens?”

Also there are a couple of “what-ifs” that make Mr. Carman nervous as he eyes Advocate Drum without a director. What if another brigade is needed in Europe to guard against Russian aggression? What if the military continues to not meet its recruitment numbers? Fortune magazine reported last month that the Army fell 25% short of its 60,000 recruitment goal last year, while all military branches struggled to meet recruiting goals. Both scenarios could conceivably take resources away from Fort Drum.

“If they can’t get all the soldiers they need, they might take them from someplace else,” Mr. Carman said. “This community needs to be prepared for whatever fight that might be. That is why we need funding, and more importantly, an executive director who can actually lead efforts like this and put us in the right light. We’re very scared that if we don’t have that, it will just be left to volunteers. We’ll do the best we can, of course. We always do. But it won’t be as well orchestrated or as well coordinated.”

On Tuesday, the U.S. Army announced it has begun unit deployments in support of European allies and partners. The action followed a Jan. 21 Army announcement that elements from the 10th Mountain Division Headquarters and the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, were preparing to replace units that are currently in Europe.

Approximately 500 soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division will replace soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division Headquarters.

“The 10th Mountain Division is proud to be called to go serve alongside our allies,” said Maj. Gen. Gregory K. Anderson, commander of the 10th Mountain Division. “The Mountain Division is no stranger to deployments across the globe. Our formations are trained, ready and prepared.”

The Army noted that the “one-for-one unit replacements” announced this week do not constitute a change to current force posture levels, and the redeploying units will return to their home stations.

Not ‘always been here’

Advocate Drum members say there is a risk of the community becoming complacent about Fort Drum and how it’s entwined into the north country’s economy. The agency is most vocal when the base faces budgetary threats, but its community ties run much deeper. Mr. Wright, who began his career in the public sector in 1971 as a caseworker for the Oswego County Department of Social Services, noted that he is of “the generation that existed before Fort Drum.”

Advocate Drum fighting to regain key funding

From left, Robert D. Ferris, Jefferson County legislator; Jefferson County’s senior planner Andrew R. Nevin; Brian E. Ashley, executive director of the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization (now Advocate Drum); and David J. Zembiec, FDRLO treasurer, discuss Fort Drum’s indirect economic impact in 2017. That year, the post generated $386 million in indirect economic impact to the region, combined with direct impacts for $1.63 billion. Watertown Daily Times

“I recall a headline of 18% unemployment in January,” Mr. Wright said. “I remember headlines where we finally exceeded a population in excess of the cow population.”

His bovine recollection is no joke. In 1988, the Watertown Daily Times reported that 1987 marked a milestone for Jefferson County. For the first time, more people than dairy cows were recorded in the county. According to the state’s county-by-county cow count, sent out in June of 1988, Jefferson County in 1987 had a record low 87,000 cows, and a record high 97,000 people. The U.S. Census Bureau now estimates the county population at 116,000; that includes the Fort Drum population. The Army estimates there are more than 15,000 Army service members, with the same number of family members living on post or in the area.

The latest data from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service puts the county’s dairy cow population at 28,000 for 2021.

Jefferson County Agricultural Coordinator Jay M. Matteson said the average cow herd size in the county is now about 350 head. The largest operation in the county has about 4,000 cows, he said. “We still have quite a number of small diary farms, but no where near what we had back in the 1980s,” Mr. Matteson said.

“That was the north country, pre-Fort Drum,” Mr. Wright said, reflecting on those 1980s headlines about jobs and cows. “I don’t think subsequent generations, individuals and leader groups understand that. They have grown up with Fort Drum has always been here, the economic engine driving the economy, making the local governments go, etcetera. Yes, there’s a speed bump in the road every now and then with somebody in Washington doing something. But it’s always been successfully addressed, so each time, they think less of it.”

Advocate Drum, Mr. Wright said, is the catalyst to keep Fort Drum in the forefront of local support.

“That’s the mission of Advocate Drum,” he said. “To advocate on behalf of the community and to make sure people have an understanding of what this is all about. Otherwise, it all goes away.”


Advocate Drum at work

Highlights of the work done by Advocate Drum (formerly the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization) over the years:

- 1989, 1991, 1995 and 2005: Advocated for Fort Drum and the community during Base Realignment and Closure rounds.

- 2003: Constituted a housing task force/Residential Community Initiative.

- 2004: Facilitated community investments to increased demands associated with the stationing of the 3rd Brigade Combat team at Fort Drum. Assisted in highlighting need and securing state funding for Interstate I-781. The “Fort Drum Connector” off I-81 opened in 2013.

- 2005: Partnered with Jefferson County Economic Development Corp. to secure state funding for Fort Drum railhead siding. Assisted in the creation of the Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization.

- 2008: Created Drum Country Business, a regional marketing initiative.

- 2011: Launched a public transportation and mobility study.

- 2015: Led state, federal and regional community response to the Supplemental Programmatic Environmental Assessment — the Army’s Force Structure Realignment study. Army proposed 16,000 potential Fort Drum job cuts. Actual job cuts: 28.

- 2016: Led local campaign to secure Fort Drum as the preferred site for potential East Coast Missile Defense Project.

- 2018: FDRLO is rebranded as Advocate Drum.

- 2019: Partnered with Fort Drum Transition Services and Jefferson County Economic Development to provide employer tours on base and to see soldier skills first-hand.

- 2020: State approval of the “Transitional J Certificate” for teachers. It provides license reciprocity for the spouses of active-duty military personnel whose duty station is in the state. Assisted in securing an Office of Local Defense Community Cooperation and Defense Community Infrastructure Pilot Program grant for the Watertown YMCA’s community and aquatic center.

- 2021: Launch of the speaker series, “Interviews and Insights.”

- 2022: Led regional campaign to secure Fort Drum as the preferred site for a Multi-Domain Task Force, which could add another 3,000 soldiers and dozens more civilian jobs.

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