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Brain Drain Bad for Defense

Proposed closing of Defense Department offices could mean the lost of 19,000 jobs in Arlington

<bt>Hell no, Tom Hafer won't go. That was his message to Arlington officials during a July town hall meeting to discuss the recent proposed closure of leased Defense Department offices. Hafer, a research and development consultant, said he would rather flip burgers in Arlington than follow one of his primary clients, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to its new home in Bethesda. Not only are the office closures a raw deal for the county, Hafer said, they could weaken national defense.

"Because of the war in Iraq, there are a lot of help-out-the-troops projects happening, and there's a drive to get them done and get them to the troops," said Hafer.

A graduate of Washington-Lee High School, Hafer served as an Army computer programmer in the 1970s and later worked for the government before becoming a consultant. He now puts his technical expertise to work developing vehicle armor that can stand up to rocket propelled grenades and designing unmanned aerial reconnaissance drones. One of his company's most recent projects, a shoe box-sized device fitted with a camera that hovers on a duct fan like a helicopter, is being tested right now and may soon be seen whizzing overhead in Baghdad.

"My family, we sought out Arlington as a place to live," said Hafer. "Those of us who live here, we have a certain connection to the community. There's a reason we chose to be here."

MANY OF THE defense offices leaving Arlington are headed to such distant states as Texas, Alabama and Indiana. According to Defense Department statements, the moves are a measure to save money and increase security by putting all defense offices inside secure military complexes. Taking these agencies out of Northern Virginia, Hafer said, will cost the Defense Department more than it has projected, but, more importantly, defense agencies can expect to see a drop in efficiency. The hassles of moving the offices themselves, Hafer said, could prove a waste of time and energy but the loss of personnel is going to be a more substantial problem.

"You cannot sustain an organization this way," said Hafer.

About one-third of the Defense Department employees ordered to move during the last round of Defense Department closures did not go, according to figures presented by Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) at a July hearing of the Base Relocation and Closure Committee (BRAC) in Arlington.

Hafer said workers in Arlington will not have much trouble finding higher paying jobs in the private sector, but restaffing and training new people is going to be a major challenge for the Pentagon. For example, he said, getting security clearance for new staff will slow Defense Department progress. Hafer added that a more serious problem is the loss of connectivity among defense agencies, the military and private contracts. Coordinating research and other operations over the phone might work, Hafer said, but separating them by sometimes hundreds of miles could also become problematic.

"There is a surprising amount of face-to-face work that's still done these days," said Hafer. "In the case of DARPA, the ability to visit quickly and efficiently makes coordination a lot tighter."

The office closures proposed on the current BRAC list include 140 office buildings — about two-thirds of Arlington's leased office space market. At the heart of the Pentagon's push to close them are the Defense Department's new security regulations, mandating that a 148-foot distance exist between agency offices and public streets. The aim, according to the new guidelines, is to protect defense workers from bomb attacks. Mixed-use high-rise buildings like the ones the Pentagon now leases in Arlington — complete with underground parking and retail space — do not fit the new mold. Hafer said the departing defense agencies will take many contractors and private firms with them to other parts of the country, but for small businesses, the moves signal real trouble.

"A lot of the smaller firms have long-term leases," said Hafer. "It's not going to be easy for them to pull out and go to Bethesda or wherever."

AT THE BRAC HEARING in Arlington, Gov. Mark Warner criticized the Pentagon for failing to look at two office sites proposed by the county that would fit the new security regulations. Those include a building already under construction in Ballston and another site near Arlington Hall.

Hafer said even if the Defense Department chooses to move the offices anyway, the county should still consider developing that property into commercial science and technology centers.

"It's kind of like when the railroad came through town in the 1800s," said Hafer. "It's something that a community can use to grow as the times change."

Hafer added that the 148 feet of space separating the buildings from streets could be used for tennis courts and public parks.

Projections released Monday from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments state that Arlington County could see an employment drop of 19,321 jobs due to the closures. Changing commuter patterns resulting from the relocation of offices, the council's study states, will also increase smog.