Economic Development

Kaiserslautern Looks Beyond U.S. Air Base

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Kaiserslautern's historic old town conceals the city's fading prospects.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The Kaiserslautern region is in economic decline but opinion is split over whether the Ramstein base is a cost or benefit to the local economy.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • About 60,000 Americans make up the Kaiserslautern Military Community – the largest U.S. population center in Europe.
    • According to U.S. data, the KMC provides an economic boost to the area of more than €1 billion ($1.1 billion).
    • Many locals disagree, and cite the area’s high unemployment and the U.S. military’s isolationism as major local problems.
  • Audio

    Audio

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The German city of Kaiserslautern and the region around it has long pinned its economic fortunes on the huge U.S. Air Force base at Ramstein.

But on this day it’s eerily quiet in the fog that blankets this corner of the southwestern state of Rhineland-Palatinate. The weather has put the brakes on air traffic at the United States’ biggest and busiest foreign airbase, about 15 kilometers (10 miles) from Kaiserslautern. In good weather, more than 40 planes a day would land and take off from Ramstein’s two runways, transporting troops and materiel all over the world.

About 60,000 American citizens make up the Kaiserslautern Military Community, and more than half of them are military personnel. Nowhere else in Europe are there as many Americans living in one place as in so-called K-Town.

“The region is evolving from an industrial economy into a service economy and a university center.”

Philip Pongratz, Kaiserslautern Economic Development Agency

At the rusty railings of a viewing platform not far from the airbase, local retirees Doris Emrich and her husband, Horst, peer into the thick fog. They would like to see American activity here come to an end permanently.

It’s an open wound, say the Emrichs, who grew up in the area and still live there.

For years, the couple have mobilized a citizens group to protest against the American base. They’ve voiced strong objections to the U.S. military using their homeland as a launching point for the Pentagon’s wars, as a base for bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons and, more recently, as a key element in the USAF’s use of drones. The protesters have also raised concerns about the levels of aircraft and ground noise at the base. But most German citizens around the base see the Emrichs as troublemakers.

Regardless of what the couple say, many residents believe Kaiserslautern and the surrounding district need the Americans.

Ramstein Air Base, which has been operating for more than six decades, is one of the biggest employers in the economically weak region around Kaiserslautern. The base employs several thousand Germans and, even though that number has been in decline since the end of the Cold War, the NATO command center in the heart of Germany is still an important source of economic stimulus in the region.

In the “Zukunftsatlas” (Future Atlas) published jointly by the research institute Prognos and Handelsblatt every three years, the Kaiserslautern region is sliding. The report ranks German cities and regions according to business outlook, employment prospects and living standards. In 2004, the first year the study was published, Kaiserslautern was in place 84, its surrounding district 85. Now K-Town is down to 247 out of 402, and Kaiserslautern district has slipped to 309.

Jobless figures are climbing. The state employment agency’s figures show that more than 9 percent of eligible workers are unemployed. Debt levels are rising, and an aging population is contributing to regional woes.

Philip Pongratz, the local business administrator and one of the heads of the Economic Development Agency City and County of Kaiserslautern, knows all of this only too well. His job is to make the region fit for the future.

The region is evolving from an industrial economy into a service economy and a university center,” he said. “That takes energy, but we’ll make the change successfully.”

Meanwhile, there are a few positive signs, including the establishment of branches of the respected Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Mathematics and the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence. But it’s not enough.

Mr. Pongratz says one can’t underestimate the economic benefits of the Americans’ eagerness for consumption. But because of the Americans’ special status, their economic impact barely registers in German statistics.

Experts have argued for years about how big an effect the U.S. military community has on the local economy. One thing they agree on, though, is that the region lacks a business of international standing. Local residents look enviously at their neighbors 60 kilometers away in Ludwigshafen, the home of chemical giant BASF, and the state capital, Mainz, which is the home of Schott glass. And the large drugstore chain DM has its headquarters in Karlsruhe, about 100 kilometers to the southeast.

For a while now, the problem has been clear to many officials. Those responsible were too slow in developing a strategy for structural change. They relied for too long on the Americans; on automaker Opel which produces engines and gearboxes there; and on sewing-machine maker Pfaff which, in better times, employed more then 6,000 people. Workers now number just 200.

The region has had difficulty luring big companies, and in most peoples’ minds, Kaiserslautern conjures up only two images: its Bundesliga soccer team and the TV series about the city’s down-and-outers, “Asternweg.”

A large part of the region is in the Palatinate Forest, whose tourism potential, although long recognized, has not really been developed. One could say that the more than 50,000 Americans who live in the area have at least brought the area some international flair, but the Americans live as they always have, in a separate world, parallel to the locals.

Ralf Hechler, 44, is the mayor of Ramstein-Miesenbach, a community of 7,500 right outside the airbase’s perimeter fence. He grew up in Ramstein but says there isn’t much day-to-day contact with the people from the base.

The Americans have their own schools, shopping malls and medical facilities. But Mr. Hechler says they do venture into the local community to party. And he seemed happy about the high concentration of hotels and restaurants in his small community. But, he says, local businesses that profit from the U.S. presence tend to be those that do business exclusively with Americans.

He also admits that the Emrichs and their community protest group have some valid points. In the mornings, even he sometimes finds the ground noise from planes being loaded and unloaded disturbing. He says sometimes the noise from bulldozers makes it seem like they are operating right in his garden.

He also has a difficult personal history with the airbase. In 1988, three military jets collided at an air show on the base and burning wreckage flew into the crowd, killing 70 spectators. His father was a leader in the local fire brigade. It took a long time to work through that experience, Mr. Hechler says. And yet, he doesn’t want the Americans to leave.

According to U.S. data, the military community on the base accounts for an economic boost to the Palatinate of more than €1 billion ($1.1 billion).

Doris and Horst Emrich say that’s just not true.

Opponents of the airbase say Germany’s federal government subsidizes the base. Millions of euros are spent on maintaining base infrastructure, they say. Over and over again in the Kaiserslautern area one meets a community polarized between those that rave about the spending power of the Americans, and those that want to send them home.

But there are also success stories. John Deere is one example. The American agricultural machine company, one of the largest in the world, decided to locate its technology and innovations center in Kaiserslautern rather than Berlin, Hamburg or Munich. In Kaiserslautern’s Pre-Park industrial zone, about 150 employees are developing things such as new software. Autonomous driving and satellite navigation are also things of interest to agriculture-related firms involved in tractors, combine harvesters and other equipment.

Also, thousands of new jobs in the digital economy have been created at Pre-Park.

Michael Weidig, head of human resources at John Deere Kaiserslautern, said the location has obvious advantages for his firm. “The closeness to the university, to research institutes and of course to our German locations of Mannheim and Zweibrücken were obvious to us,” he said.

John Deere offers students from Kaiserslautern the chance to complete an internship at the company, and even to complete their Bachelor degrees. The company has a very high retention rate among this demographic.

The decision to locate to the area represents one more small step towards breaking the city’s dependence on Ramstein, said Mr. Weidig.

 

Diana Fröhlich writes for Handelsblatt’s Reports section. To contact the author: d.froehlich@vhb.de

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