The U.S. Navy’s nuclear training site in West Milton operates out of the public eye but it has an enormous economic impact on the region, according to a Navy study.
The training program and the industry that supports it had an $855 million annual economic impact on the Capital Region in 2009, the study found.
That figure would make the sprawling but secretive facility that trains sailors to operate nuclear-powered ships and submarines a larger economic engine for the region than Skidmore College and Saratoga Race Course combined.
The college and the race course are highly visible, while the nuclear training takes place at a secure site few people outside the military see.
“Horse racing does a lot, but we do a lot, too,” Saratoga Springs Base Commander Vincent Garcia said in a breakfast presentation last week to the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce.
Garcia’s presentation focused on economic impacts and the community support the Navy needs, since the West Milton site lacks housing, retail stores, a gym and other facilities typically found on a large naval base.
The reactor operator training program will graduate about 1,440 sailors this year, most of whom live off-base in the Ballston Spa-Saratoga Springs area. There are also about 600 instructors and other staff assigned to the site.
“It’s like having another Skidmore. It’s a big presence the Navy has here,” Garcia said.
The $855 million annual impact figure is based on a 2009 study done by the Navy, and includes jobs at Bechtel Corp. and the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory. Bechtel operates the KAPL reactor research facility in Niskayuna as well as the Kenneth A. Kesselring site in West Milton, a secure facility that has two small nuclear reactors used to train sailors.
The study estimated the direct impact as 4,800 jobs with a $408 million direct impact and also found $447 million worth of indirect impacts.
By comparison, Skidmore College, in a 2012 study, estimated its total impact at $416 million annually. The Saratoga Race Course has a roughly $200 million annual impact on the local economy, according to a 2011 study by the Saratoga County Industrial Development Agency.
The Navy has economic clout that businesses along the Broadway see every day, and business leaders say they want provide the services sailors need.
“We are committed to doing everything we can to be helpful,” said Chamber of Commerce President Todd Shimkus.
The training site opened in 1957. It now trains about 60 percent of all reactor operators. That should insure the base’s survival as defense budget cuts take place, said Cmdr. Jim Edwards, who oversees the training program.
“We still have the same number of nuclear aircraft carriers and submarines,” Edwards said. “The retention level for highly trained operators is an issue. The job market for nuclear engineers is red hot.”
There are 71 nuclear-powered submarines and 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in the U.S. fleet. The reactor operators for that fleet are all trained in either Charleston, S.C., or West Milton.
Sailors in training spend about six months in the Saratoga area, while staff are assigned for two or three years at a time.
The Navy has only 200 units of housing in Saratoga Springs, so sailors make up a large part of the local rental market.
The student sailors are also encouraged to volunteer and mentor in the community, despite working 12-hour shifts in the demanding around-the-clock training program.
Garcia said the Navy is currently benefiting from the fact that developers have built new rental housing in anticipation of high-tech workers coming to GlobalFoundries, but that demand isn’t yet large.
“They will come,” Garcia said. “Eventually we’re going to have a hard time [finding housing].”
He also said the local base’s reliance on the community for housing, fitness centers and restaurants may be the trend for other bases, as defense budget cuts continue.
“This is a recipe that can be repeated elsewhere,” he said. “We’re going to have to. Budgets are shrinking.”
The reactor training program last year graduated its 50,000th student since the program started. President Jimmy Carter was among those who were stationed there in its early days, when he was a naval nuclear engineer.
The 3,900-acre West Milton site was placed in Saratoga County, despite being more than 100 miles from the ocean, to be close to the KAPL research facilities in Niskayuna.