It was more than five years ago that the federal government unveiled plans to relocate the U.S. Army Armor School and Center to Fort Benning, launching an expansion not seen at the post since the buildup to the Vietnam War.
And it’s taken time to put the pieces in place for the moment when a small city of soldiers and civilians arrive from Fort Knox, Ky., and other installations around the world to staff an infantry/armor-blended organization called the Maneuver Center of Excellence.
Gary Jones, the military affairs executive with the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce, understands the frustration that some in the local community felt -- housing developers and businesses in particular -- when soldiers didn’t start rolling in just after the Army’s November 2005 Base Realignment and Closure announcement.
“They heard the who, the what, the where, the why, the how … but they didn’t listen to the when,” said Jones, who has been the chamber’s connection to Fort Benning throughout the expansion.
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The when, as Jones refers to it, has begun.
In March, soldiers, civilian workers and some family members began relocating to Fort Benning. The pace picks up this month as schools let out and more families with children make their way to the Columbus area.
By mid-September, Fort Benning is projected to have in its ranks as many as 28,000 more troops, civilian staffers (both Department of the Army and contractors) and spouses with children.
That number includes about 2,000 construction contractors now working to finish up the Harmony Church training facilities and other structures that the Armor School began using this past winter when the inaugural mechanic training course started with about 35 students. About 1,500 of the construction workers are expected to go away in 2012 or 2013 as infrastructure is completed on the post, conceded Jones.
“But if the military opts to build more out there, then that number would prove to be invalid,” he said of Fort Benning, which continues to support active conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Still, when the dust settles on the massive BRAC expansion at the end of this year, the post’s working population will have swollen from just over 45,000 in mid-2005 to nearly 57,000, a significant increase in an austere national economic climate.
Civilian hiring at the Maneuver Center of Excellence itself is winding down, approaching its mark of 1,500 workers.
Aside from the Maneuver Center, there are other groups of civilian workers on post, according to Brandon Cockrell, chief of Benning’s Plans, Analysis & Integration Office. They include about 1,700 federal workers with the garrison command. Another 1,800 contractors perform various services on post to keep it running. Those positions include security guards, specialists writing combat doctrine and people operating the ranges.
According to Blanche Robinson, director for Fort Benning’s Civilian Personnel Advisory Center, the Maneuver Center hiring, is likely the biggest project she has ever tackled simply in terms of sheer numbers.
“The applicant pool has been more than robust for all of the vacancies,” she said. “We had blue collar as well as white collar positions, and to date we have experienced no difficulty in sending out referral lists” to hiring managers. There have been between 17 and 40 applicants per vacancy, she said.
Another aspect of the post’s expansion and its impact on employment is the defense industry that is expected to support the installation’s various missions.
Becca Hardin, executive vice president of economic development at the chamber, said she expected to see more defense activity thus far, but believes that will change as the Sept. 15 deadline mandated by the Army to complete BRAC activities draws closer.
Beyond that, Hardin said Fort Benning’s expansion, along with other companies deciding to do business in the area -- such as ATM manufacturer NCR Corp. -- bode well for the job market. Both U.S. and international manufacturers are looking at the area, she said.
“I’ve been here 10 years and I’ve never seen the volume of project activity at its peak the way it is right now,” Hardin said. “We’re also seeing companies that have had growth plans just chill for the past two years ... starting to be optimistic about the economy.”