BRAC: A vision emerges for Bragg, Fayetteville
Make no mistake, the boom is coming.
By 2013, military base realignment will have transformed Cumberland and surrounding counties.
An estimated 40,000 new residents could be here by then, about 2,800 of them high-paid soldiers, civilians and defense contractors who will be working out of a new four-star headquarters on Fort Bragg.
That new building - the $292 million cornerstone of Fort Bragg's growth - will house Forces Command and Army Reserve Command, which will move here from Fort McPherson in Atlanta by September 2011.
The strategic importance of the commands is sure to lure more defense contractors to Fort Bragg and the region. All of those new residents will help drive the demand for high-end stores, hotels and restaurants.
Think Fresh Market. Bonefish Grill. The Cheesecake Factory. Abercrombie & Fitch.
With the base realignment and closure moves - a process known as BRAC - will also come new military business parks and, perhaps eventually, a new mall, a baseball stadium, and other large-scale development.
The transformation will one day be so great that civic leaders driving the BRAC bus believe the region will have almost as much economic clout as Raleigh or Charlotte.
"What I see down the road is a region enjoying opportunities that we never thought were possible," said Tim McNeill, chairman of a regional task force working to position local communities to make the most of BRAC growth opportunities.
But with all the optimism come some serious concerns:
Can our roads and schools handle the added pressures that BRAC presents?
Will community problems - a crime rate that climbed last year, an undertrained work force and the unflattering image of a military town - prevent us from taking full advantage of all that BRAC has to offer?
Civic leaders in Fayetteville and throughout the region were working on such issues long before the base realignment was announced in May 2005. The economic thrust of BRAC just supercharged the efforts.
Millions of dollars has been spent on studies analyzing the projected growth that will be created by BRAC and what it will mean to the region. Colleges have added programs to help retrain our work force. Highway funding has been speeded up to improve some of our roads. New schools are being built.
But the question remains: Are we fully prepared to maximize the promises of BRAC and minimize the growing pains that it will cause?
Despite the work that is going on and the concentrated efforts by leaders from around the region, the answer is no.
The boom will happen, but it won't always be easy.
Progress is being made to relieve crowded schools in Harnett and Cumberland counties. Three schools are under construction in booming western Harnett County, two more in growing areas of Cumberland County.
But that is not nearly enough. The BRAC Regional Task Force estimates that at least nine new schools will be needed in the 11-county region to accommodate the estimated 6,776 new students that BRAC will bring.
Cumberland County, which is expected to get about 2,500 of those new students, needs $50 million alone.
Roads are another matter. These days, traffic at rush hour becomes strangled around Fort Bragg, Spring Lake and some rural roads that feed onto the post. Just imagine what it will be like when all those new residents arrive.
Yet progress has either slowed or stalled on long-awaited road projects that will help ease congestion. Those projects include the completion of Interstate 295 and the widening of Murchison Road.
Officials say those road projects and others will not be completed by 2011, when Forces Command and Army Rerserve Command relocate from Fort McPherson.
It's been four years since the Army announced plans to move the commands to Fort Bragg. In that time, a tremendous amount of work has gone into studying the probable effects of BRAC and what should be done to prepare the region.
The Fayetteville Observer has analyzed that information and interviewed BRAC's major players.
Over the next four weeks, the newspaper will examine the issues facing the community as Fort Bragg grows.
Will schools, roads and housing be ready by 2011?
Is the venture capital available to invest in new businesses and commercial development? Can workers be trained for the demanding jobs that are expected?
Is enough being done to improve Fayetteville's appearance and address the crime rate and other social issues?
Is the local leadership sufficient to pull it all off? Are state and federal officials doing enough to ensure the region gets what it needs?
The Observer has asked community leaders to grade how well the region has prepared itself for BRAC. Grades will be assigned to help measure the amount of progress on such issues as schools, transportation, work-force readiness and leadership. The Observer will assign grades as well.
The grades serve as a progress report on the successes of preparing for BRAC and the work yet to be done.
To evaluate that progress, it's important to step back and examine where we've been.
In late 2003, then-Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue was assigned the task of trying to save North Carolina's military bases from a federal initiative called BRAC - a move to close some military bases and shift their assets to cut waste and make the military more efficient.
When the dust settled in May 2005, most of North Carolina's bases had been spared. Some - especially Fort Bragg - found themselves in enviable positions.
The region lost Pope Air Force Base and half of its 6,000 airmen, and Fort Bragg will lose 2,000 soldiers when the 7th Special Forces Group relocates to Florida in 2011.
But those losses have been more than offset by BRAC gains and other, unrelated Army growth.
The crown jewel of the BRAC moves is the relocation of Forces Command. The Army's largest command trains, mobilizes, deploys, and sustains combat-ready forces capable of responding rapidly to crises around the world.
Officials in Fayetteville and surrounding communities were elated with the announcement that Forces Command and Army Reserve Command would move to Fort Bragg.
The soldiers and civilians at those commands make a lot of money. When the move is complete, Fort Bragg will have more generals than anywhere except the Pentagon.
Meanwhile, Pope has inherited the Air Force Reserve's 440th Airlift Wing.
About the same time as the BRAC announcement, the Army was planning other moves that affect Fort Bragg.
In 2006, the 82nd Airborne Division activated its 4th Brigade Combat Team, adding about 3,500 soldiers to the base.
The following year, the 108th Air Defense Artillery Brigade moved from Texas to Fort Bragg, eventually bringing in about 2,000 more soldiers.
Back in 2005, no one knew the true effect BRAC and other growth would have on the region.
Military officials were saying BRAC would increase the region's population by about 23,000 people. Today, that estimate has ballooned to 40,000. Some say it's more likely to be 45,000.
The BRAC Regional Task Force formed in March 2006 to analyze the effects of base realignment and to ensure that the 11-county region surrounding Fort Bragg does everything it can to reap its full benefits.
Tim McNeill, a self-proclaimed country boy from Harnett County, was named the group's chairman.
The task force moved quickly. By October of that year, the Pentagon had awarded the group a $1.6million grant to plan for growth. The following month, the task force announced that it was looking for a consultant to put together a growth plan for the 11-county region.
On Nov. 9, 2006, state leaders met with the task force to get an update on progress. They left with a pledge of support.
"How much money do we need?" asked state Sen. Tony Rand of Fayetteville.
"We don't have a figure yet," replied Paul Dordal, executive director of the task force. "It would probably be a couple of hundred thousand."
Dordal missed the mark - by a few million.
But even back then, the task force was well aware of the potential problems associated with BRAC, especially traffic congestion and crowded schools.
At the same meeting with state officials, McNeill said projections showed that more than 103,000 vehicles would pass through Spring Lake where N.C. 87 and N.C. 210 converge.
"I just may move my law office out there," Rand quipped. "You could make a real good career handling wrecks out there."
Last fall, the task force released its Regional Comprehensive Growth Plan for the Fort Bragg Region. The plan details the anticipated effects of BRAC and provides action plans on a regional and county-by-county basis.
The plan takes an exhaustive look at what the region can expect by 2013, two years after the last troops arrive at Fort Bragg. Its completion represents a transition to the critical next phase of BRAC.
"Now we have got to put the boots on the ground," McNeill said in July.
McNeill is realistic about the challenges ahead - the problems with roads, schools and the like.
"These problems did not arrive overnight," he said. "We are not going to resolve them overnight. But we have got the process started.
"Are we going to be successful on every single one of them? No. But we want to have a good batting average."
So that's the past. Let's take a closer look at the present, and the promises that BRAC is already keeping.
Since base realignment was announced in 2005, about half of the active-duty soldiers expected to move to Fort Bragg have arrived. But most of those are lower-ranking soldiers, many of whom live in barracks. Most of the high-ranking officers and well-paid civilian employees - those earning an average of about $78,000 a year - are not expected to arrive from Fort McPherson until 2011.
To the casual observer, the soldiers already here seem to have made little difference. Sure, traffic congestion may be a little worse, retail sales a little better.
But all in all, BRAC doesn't seem to have made much of an impact yet.
Or has it?
In October, ground was broken on a 215-acre tract in Fayetteville for what is being called the All American Business Center.
The site, along Santa Fe Drive at the All American Freeway, is almost three times the size of Cross Creek Mall and its parking lots.
Let's say that again. Almost three times the size of the mall.
Developer Dohn Broadwell envisions the park as a high-tech, tree-lined campus where thousands of people will work for military contractors.
A few miles away, in Spring Lake, Rocky Keim of Raleigh and Bob Stafford of Southern Pines are planning Freedom Center, a 37-acre office and industrial park for military contractors.
Other commercial development is planned.
In July, developer Neil Flavin announced intentions to build a four-star hotel and convention center near Cross Creek Mall.
A few months earlier, Fayetteville developer Rajan Shamdasani announced plans to build 248 luxury apartments on Bragg Boulevard at a cost of $20 million.
Luxury apartments on Bragg Boulevard? Who would have ever thought?
All of those projects are motivated by BRAC. And they are just some of the bigger ones. Smaller contractors have quietly been setting up shop around the region since BRAC was announced.
Last month, Bryant-Durham, the state's third-largest electrical contractor, announced that it is opening an office in Fayetteville. So did government contractor SGIS.
Fayetteville Mayor Tony Chavonne doesn't expect BRAC to change the city in an instant.
"The changes will be gradual, not dramatic nor overnight. In fact, they are already happening," said Chavonne, who takes over as BRAC task force chairman in September.
So the boom has already begun.
How far will we take it?
How far will it take us?
Those questions remain to be answered.
But hints abound.
They can be found in Broadwell's plans for an enormous military business park outside the gates of Fort Bragg.
They can be found in all the small contractors that, one by one, keep coming to Fayetteville.
They can be found in the flourishing housing developments such as the Anderson Creek Club, where a house is being sold almost every day.
And, perhaps as telling as anything, they can be found in a general membership meeting for the All American Defense Business Association held Aug. 19.
The association formed about a year ago as a way for regional business leaders to learn about the economic opportunities of BRAC and how to capitalize on them.
At that time, the association's goal was to have 100 members, said Dordal, the BRAC task force director.
Today, the association has about 200 members.
The association's keynote speaker was retired Gen. Dan K. McNeill, a North Carolina native who commanded Fort Bragg and then Forces Command.
In his speech, McNeill hit on one recurring theme: "There is opportunity coming."
So how far will that opportunity take us?
The answer depends in part on how ready the community is to seize it.
Staff writer Greg Barnes can be reached at email@example.com or 486-3525.