Commanding officers at Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base told a recent gathering of business leaders that the two military installations contribute billions to the western Washington economy.

McChord alone has spent nearly $131 million on construction projects to accommodate its new fleet C-17 cargo planes, according to Col. Raymond Johns, who has been selected for promotion to the rank of brigadier general. The fleet of 48 aircraft will replace C-141s, which will be gone from the base by mid-2002.

At Fort Lewis, meanwhile, plans are afoot to create rapid-deployment forces that will replace heavy tanks with light-armored vehicles that provide much greater mobility. Though Lt. Gen. James Hill stopped short of dismissing the possibility of a nuclear war, he said the Army has made it a priority to produce fighting units that can handle smaller conflicts. Hill did not speculate on the economic impact that transition will have locally.

He did tell the gathering of Chamber of Commerce representatives that privatization of housing at Fort Lewis is expected to be completed by there by the end of 2001.

More than 200 contractors from throughout the nation visited the post in December to look over existing housing and space available for additional units, he said. Bids are being accepted for remodeling existing facilities and construction of new ones.

“If you have $300 million to $600 million,” he said, “you can have it.”

Not counting the money privatization is likely to pump into the economy, Hill said Fort Lewis has a $1.27 billion a year impact on the Tacoma area. That includes a $775 million military and civilian payroll, he said, and $175 million in payments to retirees living within 50 miles of the Fort. It also reflects $208 million in contracts, goods, services and construction and another $7 million in public school subsidies.

“Double or even triple the impact of those dollars,” he said, “and you have a better idea of what we mean to this market.”

Johns provided few dollar figures in his remarks but observed that a decade ago, only a third of the airmen and women at the base were married. Today, he said, the figure is closer to 65 percent.

The spouses of these married military personnel are accessing programs such as those at Clover Park Technical College, where the Air Force will pay 50 percent of the cost of courses, he said.

The annual commander’s briefing and breakfast was hosted by the Chamber of Eastern Pierce County and held at The Liberty Theater in Puyallup.

By George Pica, Business Examiner staff