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Take a fresh look at ‘Pentagon South’

Published 8:07pm Saturday, April 6, 2013

For the 60 people in Hampton Roads who received WARN notices late last month from Lockheed Martin, it doesn’t much matter why their jobs are suddenly in jeopardy. What matters is that by the end of May they could find themselves out of work and looking for employment in an economy that still struggles to add more jobs than it loses from one month to the next.

Under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, which requires companies with 100 or more employees to notify workers at least 60 days in advance of plant closings or mass layoffs, Lockheed Martin sent letters to 59 employees at its North Suffolk location and one at a Virginia Beach location that they could be laid off on May 31.

With all the talk about sequestration and fiscal cliffs and other gloom-and-doom scenarios coming out of Washington, D.C., the obvious conclusion would be that the pending layoffs are a response to the budget meltdown on Capitol Hill. Tours of the White House have been suspended, and U.S. naval strategies have been changed as a result of the repeated manufactured crises coming out of Congress and the White House, so it would not be hard to imagine the downstream effects becoming clear right here in Suffolk, whose Harbour View community is sometimes known as “Pentagon South.”

But Lockheed Martin officials are blaming this potential round of layoffs on business conditions. A client for whom the company is doing work is putting a follow-on contract out for bid, and if Lockheed doesn’t win the bid, it will not get the new work.

In other words, this round of potential layoffs would be a result of the normal ebb and flow of business. One could make the argument that a better set of financial conditions on the national level might have given the company other contracts it could fall back on if it lost this particular one, but that speculative road gets pretty rocky, pretty quickly, and the conclusions one reaches along the way are less and less reliable.

One reliable conclusion that Suffolk officials should reach, however, is that the city must be very careful about hitching its future to the military or to military contractors. The city was able to replace U.S. Joint Forces Command following its disestablishment, but Base Realignment and Closure actions around the nation prove such victories can be short-lived. And Lockheed Martin’s announcement proves that even the largest private-sector defense contractors are not immune to market forces.

Lockheed’s announcement — along with a recent one by Cobham Composite Products that it will shutter the Harbour View facility it opened amid much fanfare just a couple of years ago — confirm that the economic realities defense contractors face can wipe out the jobs a community has come to rely upon.

There’s no need to look at these two announcements as the beginning of a crisis in Suffolk. Better to look at them as a reminder that few things are permanent in life, especially when it comes to matters of business. Good city planning recognizes that fact and demands economic development efforts that encourage the broadest possible range of economic investment in a community.

It might be time for “Pentagon South” to get that kind of treatment, time for a fresh perspective on it.

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