After months of news about decreasing Defense Department budgets, there’s a bright spot on the horizon for Colorado Springs.
In 2014, the Pentagon plans to spend 27 percent of its Army construction budget at Fort Carson, bringing jobs and opportunities to the region, and signaling the increasing importance of the Mountain Post to overall defense readiness.
Fort Carson is set to receive $264.4 million for the fiscal year, solely for major construction projects at the Army post. It’s a big deal for the local economy and a promising sign that the city might not see large-scale military reductions in coming years, analysts say.
In fact, the money set aside for barracks, office space and hangars for the incoming combat aviation brigade is the only military construction money available in the state of Colorado. While the Air Force is increasing its construction budget to $1.3 billion this year — up $880 billion from 2013 levels — none of that money will be spent in the Centennial State.
“It’s definitely a good sign,” said Fred Crowley, an economist at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. “They’ve poured billions into Fort Carson in the last few years. It could be too expensive to end missions there during the next BRAC (base realignment and closure) rounds. The places that don’t get money — that’s where you have to be worried.”
Fort Carson is one of the pivotal posts for the military, says Andy Merritt, chief defense industry officer for the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance. It’s listed in the military’s program environmental assessment (PEA) as one of a handful of bases that could see a drop of 8,000 soldiers or an increase of 3,000 as the Army realigns its force in the wake of tighter budgets and the end of two wars.
“Fort Carson is important, not just because of the CAB, but it’s getting money for construction for special operations as well,” he said. “We benefited from the last BRAC round, and we could see some troop increases in the next one as well — and during the PEA.”
But Merritt says the post isn’t assured anything, despite the positive news. The Business Alliance is working to make sure the community’s response to the PEA is positive.
“In the bigger picture, we think that ongoing support from the local community, from our state and from our congressional leaders will make a difference,” he said. “It’s both the little things, like the welcoming community, and the big things, like the fact that we’ve spent $180 million on the roads around Fort Carson, that will make the difference.”
Military construction activity brings good economic news, Crowley said. Even if the company hired for the jobs is out of state, workers will stay in the Springs and spend money here, Crowley said.
“There’s a great multiplier for construction jobs, if the company is local,” he said. “But even if it isn’t, there will be activity related to the construction at Fort Carson. People will need places to stay, and they could choose the bungalows along Manitou Avenue. They’ll eat here; they’ll want things to do at night. They’ll get fuel here, and those construction vehicles use a lot of diesel. And they’ll need repairs, to rent equipment, things like that.”
The economic activity will be a welcome boon to Colorado Springs, where unemployment levels have routinely been higher than other metropolitan parts of the state. In March, the local unemployment rate was 8.6 percent, compared to the overall state average of 7.1 percent.
Merritt says the funding cements the arrival of the CAB. Some military experts feared the additional brigade would be axed in the wake of sequestration, which will cut $1.2 trillion from the Pentagon’s budget in the next 10 years.
“It means we have funding for 14 more projects,” he said. “It’s a guarantee that the CAB will be coming here. We weren’t sure as the 10-year sequestration plan progresses, future years might not be funded, but the CAB buildings will be finished. It’s a very positive sign.”
Colorado Springs can’t rest easy because of the construction money, Merritt said. The community shouldn’t assume that Fort Carson and it’s $2.1 billion of economic impact will be unaffected by sequestration or by the next BRAC round.
The Business Alliance has already sent in comments related to the program assessment for 2020, a plan that has Fort Carson either gaining or losing soldiers, depending on force restructuring. The Army plans to reduce the active-duty force from its current level of 562,000 to pre-war levels of 490,000. That means realigning many brigades and battalions.
“We believe that Fort Carson is uniquely positioned to meet the objectives and requirements for the nation’s defense strategy and the global readiness force that today’s challenging world demands,” the Business Alliance’s response reads. “Over the years, Fort Carson has grown because Army leaders have found that it meets and exceeds the training and readiness needs of the Army, while providing an enhanced quality of life for Army troops and their families.”
Merritt said recently that more than 200 comments were sent in about the proposed personnel changes at Fort Carson — and unfortunately, not all of them were positive. He said that the Pentagon tracks military-friendly areas — and also tracks detracting stories and legislation.
That’s why it’s important to present a united front, he said. The letter to the military not only talks about quality of life issues, but also points out improvements around the military post.
“We have taken steps such as supporting the use of conservation easements on the south end of the post, and preventing further development along the east side to prevent encroachment and its impact to training,” the letter said. “TRICARE beneficiaries use Memorial Hospital more than any other private facility west of the Mississippi. In addition, the Peak Military Care network, a unique collaboration of military, VA and community-based entities, has been launched to connect the needs of our community military service members, veterans and their families to the highest-quality resources by providing a central source for information, navigation and integrated services.”
It’s all about making sure the people who are making the final decisions know about the region’s commitment to Fort Carson, Merritt said.
“We need to let the Pentagon know the things we’ve done here,” he said. “Fort Carson has the highest re-enlistment rate in the nation — that says something about what it’s like to live here. We have one of the highest numbers of retirees here, as well. That tells the military that people like it here.
“And all that’s important to maintaining the military here.”
Projects in 2014 (scheduled completion 2019)
Headquarters building, 4th Combat Aviation Brigade
Two aircraft maintenance hangars
Fire and emergency services facility for the airfield
Flight simulator training facility
Repair and resurface runway
Utilities upgrades, heating and cooling system and roadway improvements
(Source: Thomas Wiersma, Fort Carson directorate of public works master planner)