Augusta/Richmond County: Military Industrial Complex

Fort Gordon’s expansion may bring new business to town

Hardly anyone noticed when 130 U.S. Navy personnel arrived at Augusta’s Fort Gordon a few years ago.

In a Pentagon consolidation move, the sailors were shipped from their duty station in Spain to join an already eclectic group of 1,700 Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine and civilian personnel at the base’s Regional Security Operations Center established there in the mid-1990s. The military and civilian men and women are intelligence analysts, cryptologists, linguists and security experts, the kind of characters who populate spy novels. Stealth, it seemed, was at the heart of their trade.

Even when their office went through a name change to become the National Security Agency/Central Security Service, Georgia (NSA/CSS Georgia), an acronymic mouthful, and their mission expanded, there was hardly a ripple of attention from the public. “It has not really been publicized,” says Walter Sprouse, executive director of the Development Authority of Richmond County. “When I tell people the NSA facility is going to go on Fort Gordon, they say, ‘Really, I didn’t know that.’”

But the news will soon be washing across the nation as the NSA’s new 525,000-square-foot building begins to rise following its March groundbreaking. Scheduled to be completed by 2010 (and requiring two additional years for equipment installation), the NSA facility will be one of only three in the world and could end up carrying a price tag of nearly $1 billion. And when the doors open for its secret business in 2012, 4,000 well paying jobs will be in place.

“Right now they are looking for folks with a strong math background and analytical skills,” says Thom Tuckey, executive director of the CSRA (Central Savannah River Area) Alliance for Fort Gordon. “These are folks who can take 10 different pieces of information and find a connection between them. They can take raw data and turn that raw data into useful intelligence.” Tuckey estimates 500 military contractors will be drawn to the construction site.

The announcement of the NSA intelligence gathering and analysis center is the latest, and most dramatic, of a string of new business arrivals and expansions in Augusta, a pleasing circumstance to local economic developers. But it isn’t people arriving to work at Fort Gordon as much as those leaving the Army post that is playing into the economic development strategy in Augusta, Georgia’s second largest city.

“Fort Gordon does not get a lot of national press,” Sprouse says. “What we wanted to do when we visited [business and industry] site selection consultants outside the state of Georgia was make sure they were aware that it is an excellent source of good, skilled workers. About 120 or so [Army veterans] retire or are discharged at Fort Gordon each month, and half of them desire to stay here. So you’re looking at 60 or so people a month coming into the local workforce. These are people coming from a modern Army that is technology driven.”

Sprouse cites the workforce’s technology skills level as a chief attraction for two new businesses setting up shop in Richmond County. Automatic Data Processing (ADP), a global business solutions company is bringing 1,000 new jobs and a $30 million investment. T-Mobile, a wireless carrier, began hiring 750 workers this summer for a new 80,000-square-foot customer service center, marking another $30 million investment in the Augusta area.

The flurry of impressive economic development activity gave locals cause to celebrate, Sprouse says, but not to rest. “Calls have been coming in from military contractors relative to the NSA facility. And we’ve begun taking inventory of the properties that might be available near Fort Gordon,” he adds.

And there’s another property Sprouse is interested in further developing – the 1,320-acre Augusta Regional Airport. “We see some great potential there,” he says. With an 8,342-foot runway, a 6,336-foot cross-runway, four-lane road access and rail service nearby, the airport “should appeal to just-in-time [JIT] manufacturers and aviation related business and industry. It is unusual to find an airport of this size with such amenities.”



Taxing Downtown


Margaret Woodard walked into her downtown Augusta office and slumped into a chair, hot, tired and thirsty, but still upbeat after campaigning door-to-door – make that store-to-store – on a scorching summer afternoon.

She wasn’t selling a candidate but an idea. “I am a door-to-door cheerleader,” says Woodard, who also is executive director of Augusta’s Downtown Development Authority.

More accurately, she had been something of a door-to-door saleswoman for the past three weeks, calling on downtown business owners in an attempt to convince them to tax themselves to create a Business Improvement District (BID) in the downtown commercial area.

Woodard was seeking 103 signatures on her BID petition. She reached her goal two weeks later, just two days before her deadline. Exactly 104 business owners agreed to be assessed for about .007 percent of their property value, which will come back to a BID board for use in downtown improvements. The taxes will amount to about $400,000 annually beginning in 2008.

“That will be used for instant graffiti removal, extra trash pick-up, bicycle ambassadors, crime reduction measures and other improvements,” Woodard says. About 38 city blocks will fall within the BID effort.

Just as she was announcing the petition drive’s successful completion, Woodard received some more good news. “I was told the J.B. White building had closed,” she says, referring to the sale of the 80,000-square-foot empty department store to a developer who plans to create residences in the structure. “That means about 150 people living downtown.”

The White building, when finished, will hold 51 condominiums ranging from lofts to large three-bedroom residences. “What’s important to us is that people are going back to the urban lifestyle,” Woodard says. “Once we reach that tipping point of people living downtown, then we are in a really good place to start getting some of the services those folks are going to need downtown; grocery stores, drug stores and some high end retail will come behind them.”

Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver had been anxiously counting the signatures on Woodard’s petition and hoping for a positive outcome. “Downtown is the melting pot of the community, a place where you have all different ethnicities, races and socioeconomic backgrounds coming together for events and to shop and dine,” he explains. “We recently approved the reprogramming of $1.2 million in SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) funds, a lot of which will go toward downtown improvements.”

Downtown also is the target for two of Copenhaver’s pet projects: a new baseball park for the Augusta GreenJackets, a minor league team owned by Baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr., and a riverfront condominium development. “The critical mass of those two anchors would create, I’m sure, a good bit more development along the riverfront,” he says. “An exploratory committee [for the ball park] is in the middle of the due diligence process and [they] were going out with a request for proposals on a feasibility study. Community support is building, but we still have a lot of work to do.” Copenhaver hopes to see groundbreaking on the condo project by the first of next year.

The mayor also is leading an effort to find a means of honoring Augusta’s most famous citizen, singer and cultural icon James Brown. “We are looking at a number of things,” Copenhaver says. “James Brown was all about constant motion and I think you have to put that into play in anything we do to honor him.” After talks with the Brown family and the late performer’s friends, Copenhaver is considering a weeklong series of events leading up to Brown’s birthday in May.

Reflecting on the large number of jobs rolling into Augusta and the upbeat news regarding downtown, Copenhaver seems pleasantly surprised. “Augusta has always had activity but not this quality of activity,” he says. “Augusta was an undeveloped commodity for so long and now it is a safe harbor for investment. In simple economic terms, the money is going to go to the best value.”

Part of that value lies in a workforce constantly fed by exiting Army veterans at Fort Gordon. “It makes sense that firms and businesses that can take advantage of that renewable labor resource would look to locate in Augusta,” Copenhaver says.

The presence of the big Army post – 20,000-plus military and civilian jobs – has a wide-ranging effect on the local economy, say those in the know.

“In 2006, Fort Gordon purchased $99.3 million worth of medical care from local medical facilities,” says Thom Tuckey, who, as executive director of the Alliance for Fort Gordon, keeps track of all things concerning the base.

“There are no babies born out at Fort Gordon,” says Tuckey, who is Gordon’s former garrison commander. “The [annual] contract with Medical College of Georgia for obstetrics alone is $3.5 million.”

A 2000 study, Tuckey says, put the annual, direct local economic impact of Fort Gordon at $1.4 billion, not including some $180 million a year going to retirees in the area.

New developments in Augusta are less directly tied to the fort’s presence, but there are connections. A new master of public administration (MPA) program at Augusta State University centers on homeland security courses that could be related to the arrival of the giant NSA facility being built at the military installation.

“The specialized track in that MPA program focuses on homeland security,” says Saundra Reinke, who created the program and directs it. “That is civil liberties, immigration and border patrol, transportation issues, public works and bioterrorism. There is a course called Unconventional Threats, focusing on terrorism, including the study of cyber-terrorism and things that haven’t happened yet but probably will.”

Reinke says the MPA program was born after talks with NSA officials, but isn’t part of a formal agreement with the agency. “I would be happy if [MPA graduates] got jobs at Fort Gordon,” she says. “But I’d be just as happy if they went to work for the Drug Enforcement Agency or the FBI or FEMA. I have talked with the NSA people and they have people out there who might be interested in this program and they are going to help me market it among those people.”



Augusta/Richmond County At-A-Glance



Population


(2005)


195,769



Unemployment


(June 2007)


Richmond County, 5.3 percent; Augusta Metro Area

(6 counties), 4.8 percent; Georgia, 4.1 percent



Per Capita Income


(2004)


$25,250;

Georgia, $29,782



Top 10 Employers


EZ GO Textron, 1,277; Tyco Healthcare-Kendall, 850; International Paper, 820; Kellogg’s, 535; FPL Food, LLC, 500; Procter & Gamble, 450; Thermal Ceramics, 444; Castleberry/Snow Brands, 375; Augusta Newsprint, 374; Boral Brick, 363



Government


Augusta is a consolidated

city-county government with

a 10-member commission elected by districts to four-year terms and presided over by

the mayor, who is elected countywide.



Sources


Development Authority of

Richmond County, Office of the Mayor,

City of Augusta, Georgia Dept. of Labor, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics,

U.S. Census Bureau





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