Alabama city built on fed­eral dol­lars feel­ing pinch

Ledger-Enquirer - - Obituaries/News - BY JAY REEVES


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.

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