Alabama city built on federal dollars feeling pinch
Once known for its cotton trade and watercress farms, Huntsville, Alabama, is now the ultimate government town: About 70 federal agencies are located at the Army’s 38,000-acre Redstone Arsenal. More than half of the area’s economy is tied to Washington spending.
As the government shutdown drags into a third week, people and businesses that rely on that federal largesse for their livelihoods are showing the strain.
Empty parking lots and darkened offices at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center on Redstone have translated into vacant hotel rooms because out-of-town government workers and contractors aren’t coming. Restaurants frequented by federal workers who travel on government spending accounts are struggling, too.
Transportation Security Administration employees working without pay at the city’s airport say they are spending their own money to bring in quiches and breakfast rolls as a morale booster. Moms are sharing tips online about free entertainment and buying food in bulk to save a few bucks. The largest credit union has already provided hundreds of bridge loans for struggling families.
“It’s a fog with no end in sight,” said Michael Northern, an executive with a small company that runs three restaurants outside a main arsenal gate. The lunch crowd is still OK, he said, but dinner dollars have dried up, and business is off at least 35 percent.
“People are just going home and nesting, trying to conserve resources,” said Northern, vice president of WJP Restaurant Group. “Imagine being in that posture and hearing Donald Trump say, ‘It could be a year.’ ”
The closure persists because the president and congressional Democrats can’t agree on $5.7 billion in funding for a border wall.
The jobs of some 800,000 workers hang in the balance. A little more than half are still working without pay, and hundreds of thousands missed paychecks Friday.
Economic statistics lag real-time events, so it’s hard to gauge the effects of a shutdown that’s been going on less than a month.
But in Huntsville, a city of about 195,000 people where about 38,000 work at Redstone, more than 5,000 workers are affected by the shutdown. And while state statistics show fewer than 60 people have applied for jobless benefits in the county surrounding Huntsville since the shutdown, frustration and worry are building.
Huntsville was just another Alabama city until the government decided to build rockets at Redstone Arsenal at the dawn of the space race.
The influx of people and federal dollars that arrived with NASA transformed the city into a technical and engineering hub that only grew as Army missile and materiel programs expanded on the base.
That heavy reliance on federal spending has Huntsville residents wondering what will come next.
Jack Lyons, a lifelong space geek who thought he’d hit the jackpot when he got a job as a contractor working on massive rocket test stands for NASA, is spending the furlough on his small side business making props for marching bands. A solid Republican voter until 2016, when he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Trump, he’s frustrated and saddened by what’s going on in Washington.
“They’re trying to use people as bargaining chips, and it just isn’t right,” Lyons said. Unlike civil service workers who expect to eventually get back pay, Lyons doesn’t know if he’ll ever see a dollar from the shutdown period.
Katie Barron works from home in Madison, Ala., but her husband is a National Weather Service meteorologist forced to work without pay because his job is essential.