The EDC is fortunate to work with someone like Nathan who has such a great reputation with the Anniston Army Depot as well as our congressional delegation. Congratulations Nathan, and thank you for all of the hard work you continue to do for Calhoun County.
Local leaders say Nathan Hill, military liaison for the Calhoun County Economic Development Council for nearly two decades, played a key role in landing future repair work for the Army.
In the last year, Nathan Hill fought a battle for the future of Anniston Army Depot.
Not with bullets, but with bullet points.
One by one, Hill approached political leaders to remind them of what the depot does. In simple terms.
It’s the place where almost all of America’s armored vehicles come to be repaired, Hill told them. The work gets done cheaper and faster than at other plants, he said. And there’s room for more.
Local leaders say Hill, who has been the military liaison for the Calhoun County Economic Development Council for nearly two decades, played a key role in getting the Pentagon to name Anniston as the future repair depot for the Armored Multipurpose Vehicle, a new generation of armored vehicle that the Army is just beginning to build.
For his work on that effort, Hill was named The Anniston Star’s 2020 Citizen of the Year. Executive Editor Anthony Cook made the surprise presentation at Thursday’s annual meeting of the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s not so much about what the AMPV means for Anniston now,” Greg Potts, Hill’s colleague on a state military stability board said in an earlier interview. “The really important thing is what this means for Anniston 30 or 40 years from now.”
Hill grew up in Jacksonville, and his career is a case study in just how tightly the Army is woven into the local economy. His father, Richard, worked at the depot, a massive 15,000-acre facility where thousands of civilians, under the command of Army officers, repair and rebuild small arms, tanks and other armored vehicles.
After a stint in the Air Force, Hill too came to work at the depot, first as a civilian accountant, then in a series of other administrative jobs, rising to the post of deputy commander back in the 1990s, when the “commander” title could be applied to civilian and military administrators alike.
He saw the depot through the 1990s Base Realignment and Closure, when Congress pared back America’s military bases to fit the needs of the post-Cold-War world. That process closed Fort McClellan, the Army training base that had been the economic backbone of the community.
Fighting off losses
Across town from McClellan, though, the depot came through the BRAC unharmed.
Workers still stream into the depot at the start of every shift, as do transfer trucks carrying tanks and APCs on trailers. Most residents never see the massive workshops where those tanks are refurbished, but they’re in many ways the heart of the local economy, employing more people in Anniston than any other enterprise.
There’s always work to do at the depot, because tanks and weapons face routine wear and tear, but global conflict and domestic politics have a huge sway over the amount of work that comes through Anniston. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq brought the depot a grim windfall, as battle-damaged vehicles returned to be fixed.
Drawdown in those wars, nearly a decade ago, cost the depot hundreds of jobs. Contracts to supply weapons to other countries, such as Morocco and Saudi Arabia, helped bring some of those jobs back.
The only other way to bring new jobs to the depot is to take on repair of some type of new vehicle. That’s why local leaders took notice when the Army announced its plan to phase out the M113, a Vietnam-era personnel carrier, and replace it with a new creation, the AMPV.
Anniston is where the M113 comes for repairs, but there was no guarantee Anniston would be tapped for work on the new vehicle.
The biggest problem: The new vehicle would be based on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, which goes to Red River Army Depot in Texarkana, Texas, for repairs. And Texarkana sits near three other states — Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana — each with its own senators and congressmen, able to lobby for work in their backyards.
Building for the future
Hill says he began contacting the area’s lawmakers about the AMPV about five years ago, when it was still largely a footnote in defense discussions on Capitol Hill.
“We tried to tell them that this is a big thing for Anniston,” Hill said.
The trick, depot advocates say, was making the pitch simple.
“This is a 50,000-word essay, but Nathan has to get it down to one page if he wants to convince people in Washington,” said Potts.
Hill did exactly that, rendering the case down to simple points that could be fit on a single page.
His message: Anniston already repairs most of the nation’s combat vehicles. The depot has been cost-effective, according to past evaluations by DoD officials. And it has room to take on more work.
Hill took that message to Montgomery, securing the support of Gov. Kay Ivey, who wrote to Congress about the issue using points largely drawn from Hill, according to depot advocates. And he kept making those points to DoD officials and lawmakers — being careful to stick just to arguments about what Anniston can do for the Army.
“What we wanted to do was make it as apolitical as possible,” he said.
Depot advocates say Hill, with his voluminous knowledge of the depot, was the best person for that job.
“He’s extremely knowledgeable,” said Robert LaBranche, director of the state’s Military Stability Commission. “He has all the facts and figures in his head.”
The next fight
The depot finally landed the AMPV work in May. Hill is cautious about estimates of how many jobs it will create — but for him, the point is that Anniston will have those jobs well into the middle of this century.
The AMPV will have to accumulate some wear and tear before it even comes to Anniston, but beginning in the 2030s, repairing the vehicle will be an industry here.
While Anniston waits for that work, the depot is also seeing smaller victories. The Pentagon in 2017 announced it would move the center for repairing military locomotives from Hill Air Force Base in Utah to Anniston, bringing 33 civilian jobs. That new center seemed to be on hold last year when President Donald Trump raided military construction funds to pay for construction on a border wall.
Hill last week said it’s still possible the project could move forward without delay, with defense officials looking for other money that could pay for the needed construction.
“It should be on schedule,” he said.
Depot advocates say they don’t expect another round of the cutbacks known as BRAC — but if there were one, they say, the depot is in a good position to come out with more work, not less. Despite the loss of the fort in the mid-1990s BRAC, the depot has fared well.
“To those who were here in the pre-1995 days I’m sure it seems like you’re in a valley,” LaBranche said. “But the growth at the depot has been steady since then.”
The Army last week announced that it was canceling its bids for another proposed new vehicle, a self-driving armored personnel carrier that would have been a replacement for the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. It’s a project Defense Secretary Mark Esper alluded to in a visit to the depot last year.
Depot advocate Potts said it’s too early to say whether the robo-Bradley project is truly dead or simply headed back to the drawing board.
“I’m not going to speculate,” he said. “It’s too soft and gooey to worry about now.”
Hill, however, has already been thinking about building the case for bringing a future vehicle here.
Potts said there’s nobody better to be in charge of making the case for the installation.
“We wouldn’t be where we are without Nathan’s leadership,” he said.