Base changes means boom for San Antonio

January 14, 2008 8:24:30 AM PST
Congressional orders for the closure and realignment of military bases is cause for panic in most military towns, but for San Antonio, the orders will bring thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars in construction over the next three years. The base closure and realignment process "for most people really has been a thing of fear and loathing," said Mayor Phil Hardberger. "BRAC has really been a good thing for San Antonio."

The fifth and latest round of BRAC, ordered by Congress in 2005, will move nearly 5,000 extra military jobs to San Antonio, a community with an already large Defense Department presence.

The moves, to be completed by 2011, will include an estimated $2.1 billion in renovation and construction at Army and Air Force installations here.

The realignment will most affect Fort Sam Houston, a 131-year old garrison in the middle of San Antonio. The base, which already is the headquarters for the Army's medical command, will become the center for all Defense Department medical training and research.

Trainees from Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington and naval facilities in Great Lakes, Ill., Portsmouth, Va. and San Diego will move to Fort Sam, as will Air Force trainees from Wichita Falls, Texas.

Fort Sam will also become the headquarters for the command that oversees all Army post infrastructure worldwide.

On Friday, military officials broke ground on a new $92 million Battlefield Health and Trauma Center, which will combine research in all areas of battlefield medicine, from dentistry to plastic surgery and prosthetics.

Maj. Gen. George Weightman said the combined facility will improve cooperation among military medical researchers.

"We know there will be scientific breakthroughs here," he said Friday, standing in the parking lot that will make way for the new 150,000-square-foot research facility.

The trauma center is the first major BRAC project to break ground.

But while officials add and renovate new buildings at Fort Sam, they are working to lay out the 2,900-acre post in a way that makes sense, said Col. Wendy Martinson, the garrison commander who is overseeing the massive building project.

"This is our one chance to get it right," she said.

Currently, about 25,000 people work on post at Fort Sam; that number will climb by nearly 11,000.

The additional personnel are expected to bring 9,000 new schoolchildren to an already fast-growing city, now the nation's seventh largest.

To help brace for the influx of families and added traffic in the central part of the city, officials from San Antonio, Bexar County and the chamber of commerce have put together a task force that includes school officials and others likely to be affected.

"There's a lot of moving parts," said Richard Perez, the president and chief executive of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce.

Streets around a major Fort Sam entrance will have to be widened and new schools will likely be needed.

But no one in San Antonio -- a community that likes to call itself "Military City, U.S.A." -- is complaining.

Even without the added personnel, the city economic development department found that military personnel, retirees and civilian workers, along with the businesses that follow them, pump more than $13 billion into the local economy. When that money is translated into jobs, nearly one in four jobs in San Antonio can be traced back to the Defense Department.

The city hasn't always benefited from BRAC, however.

In the 1995 round, Kelly Air Force Base on the southwest side of the city was shuttered. So when Congress made plans for another round a decade later, Hardberger said the city, county and chamber began lobbying to avoid another closure.

"When they closed Kelly, it was kind of wake-up call to San Antonio," he said. "We started worrying about it."

Perez, a former city councilman, said at the time, the community was worried about keeping what it had, not adding people. But the lobbying effort paid off better than expected.

Hardberger said he's hopeful the new residents will help offset some of the overbuilding of new homes on the city's outskirts, a problem that has hit other Sun Belt cities hard recently.

The military, he notes, is "almost depression proof, and you don't have many industries that are like that."

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