Shutdown squeezing Alabama city built on federal spending

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama (AP) – Once known for its cotton trade and watercress farms, Huntsville, Alabama in the United States (US) is now the ultimate government town: About 70 federal agencies are located at the Army’s 38,000-acre Redstone Arsenal. More than half of the area’s economy is tied to Washington spending.

As the government shutdown drags into a third week, people and businesses that rely on that federal largesse for their livelihood are showing the strain.

Empty parking lots and darkened offices at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre on Redstone have translated into vacant hotel rooms because out-of-town government workers and contractors aren’t coming. Restaurants frequented by federal workers who travel on government spending accounts are struggling, too.

Transportation Security Administration employees working without pay at the city’s airport say they are spending their own money to bring in quiches and breakfast rolls as a morale booster.

Moms are sharing tips online about free entertainment and buying food in bulk to save a few bucks. The largest credit union has already provided hundreds of bridge loans for struggling families.

Workers monitor research operations aboard the International Space Station from NASA’s Payload Operations Integration Centre in Huntsville, Alabama
A mural decorates a downtown parking garage in Huntsville. – PHOTOS: AP
Server Dawn Killoran pulls up the shades as tables sit empty during dinnertime at Rocket City Tavern near numerous federal agencies in Huntsville. Business at the restaurant is off at least 35 per cent since the partial federal shutdown began
An employee leaves the state operated US Space & Rocket Centre which serves as the visitor centre for the nearby federally funded NASA Marshall Space Flight Centre, in Huntsville

“It’s a fog with no end in sight,” said Michael Northern, an executive with a small company that runs three restaurants outside a main arsenal gate. The lunch crowd is still OK, he said, but dinner dollars have dried up, and business is off at least 35 per cent.

“People are just going home and nesting, trying to conserve resources,” said Northern, vice president of WJP Restaurant Group. “Imagine being in that posture and hearing Donald Trump say, ‘It could be a year’.”

The closure persists because the President and congressional Democrats can’t agree on USD5.7 billion in funding for a border wall, which Trump touts as vital to US security and critics see as pointless and immoral.

The jobs of some 800,000 workers hang in the balance. A little more than half are still working without pay, and hundreds of thousands missed paychecks on Friday.

Economic statistics lag real-time events, so it’s hard to gauge the effects of a shutdown that’s been going on less than a month. But in Huntsville, a city of about 195,000 people where more than 5,000 workers are affected, frustration and worry are building.

Located at the base of a mountain in the lush Tennessee Valley, Huntsville was just another Alabama city until the government decided to build rockets at Redstone Arsenal at the dawn of the space race.

The influx of people and federal dollars that arrived with NASA transformed the city into a technical and engineering hub that only grew as Army missile and materiel programmes expanded on the base.

That heavy reliance on federal spending has Huntsville residents wondering what will come next.

Jack Lyons, a lifelong space geek who thought he’d hit the jackpot when he got a job as a contractor working on massive rocket test stands for NASA, is spending the furlough on his small side business making props for marching bands.

A solid Republican voter until 2016, when he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Trump, he’s frustrated and saddened by what’s going on in Washington.

“They’re trying to use people as bargaining chips, and it just isn’t right,” Lyons said. Unlike civil service workers who expect to eventually get back pay, Lyons doesn’t know if he’ll ever see a dollar from the shutdown period.

Just back from maternity leave following the birth of her second child, Katie Barron works at home for a private company not connected to the government, but her husband is a National Weather Service meteorologist forced to work without pay because his job is classified as essential.

They’re cancelling their date night to save a couple of hundred dollars, and the purchase of a new refrigerator is on hold. They’ve also put off home and car maintenance, but the USD450-a-week bill for day care still has to be paid, as do the mortgage and utility bills.

“We’re a little bit buffered, but our lives are basically based off dual incomes,” Barron said.