From 8 a.m. until 6 p.m., March 17, The Commons at Fort McPherson became a miniature version of the city of Sumter, S.C., when more than 50 businesses, schools, recreation activities and other institutions from the city came to educate Soldiers, Civilian employees and Family members relocating to Shaw Air Force Base what awaits them following the 2011 closing of Fort McPherson and Fort Gillem in accordance with the Base Relocation and Closure Act.

The Third Army Sumter Strategic Relocation Expo was designed "to introduce the great community of Sumter to the community of Third Army," said Col. Kevin Felix, deputy chief of staff for strategic relocation, Third Army.

Felix is an expert on the community, having lived there for the past two years after being assigned as Third Army's liaison officer to Sumter. "It's a great city," he said, adding that the best way to present the city was to allow people to interact with members of the community.

"It's more intimate than reading a Web site," Felix said of the face-to-face meetings. "It gives a good sense of the community."

During the expo, Third Army personnel were shown samples of the education opportunities, business and job options, housing areas and recreation areas of their future home city. Felix said although the Army requested these general areas to be represented, it was ultimately the decision of the city leaders to determine what specific businesses would come to represent the community.

One of the instrumental people determining what to present was Susan Wild, communication, tourism and recreation director for Sumter.

Wild, who has also been acting as a liaison for the community with Third Army since 2006, said the upcoming BRAC move will have a tremendous impact on the community.

"It will add people and Families into our schools, our workforce and help the economic base," she said. Knowing all this, she said she worked closely with representatives from Sumter to determine the best ways to represent the city.

William Painter, Sumter County council member for District 6, was one of those representatives, and said once he and the council were informed through their military affairs committee of what Third Army was looking for, they offered businesses the chance to submit applications to represent the community.

"We touched a little bit of everything - education, retail, real estate, culture and arts," he said, adding he felt the final choices will definitely help people see the beauty of the city and its appreciation for the military, and make the move a little more welcoming.

Staff Sgt. Aretha Garrett, essential personnel service NCO for the Special Troops Battalion S-1, Third Army, said what she saw was impressive.

"I think it will be a good community. It's not as fast as Atlanta, but it still has a lot of available opportunities," she said. "It showed transition is not such a bad thing."

Armed with one of the many handout bags distributed, Garrett said she plans to share what she learned with her Soldiers to help educate them of the available opportunities. Soldiers weren't the only ones benefitting from the expo.

Civilian employees also affected by BRAc were in attendance to learn. Nikki Sykes, a Third Army contractor who works as the help desk manager, said she was looking at education and housing opportunities for herself and her 10th grade daughter, Abriana.

An Atlanta resident since 1997, she said she views Atlanta as home, but is still trying to be open minded about the move.

"It's a big step. Hopefully, it will be good," she said. Although her mind isn't entirely made up, after speaking with the city police chief, deputy and sheriff, Sykes said she did feel better about area.

One reason why many were so receptive to the presenters was their honesty, said Maj. Sherrilyn Oneal, motor/rail officer, land operations branch, mobility division for Third Army G-4. Oneal said the presenters were honest about the positives and negatives of Sumter. "That's the best way to be," she said, adding such knowledge can prevent future regrets and resentments at the city if it doesn't turn out to be like it is presented.

Oneal said she has a lot riding on the presentation, as she is eligible to retire. Her perceptions of the area will determine whether she moves on or retires.

"I just want to see what South Carolina has to offer," Oneal said. "I'm not sure yet."

One thing the city does have to offer is a good central location to many attractions, Painter said. "We're in a good area, about 85 miles to mountains, Charlestown, Charlotte, Augusta and Myrtle Beach," he said. "We have a good climate and look forward to receiving and welcoming all the folks in Third Army."

Painter said the city, which has a population of about 43,000, has already done a lot to prepare for the additional 6,000 to 9,000 people expected to come to the city once Third Army relocates.

Larry Blanding, another Sumter County council member for District 6, said a sports complex was just built to add to the recreation opportunities.

Besides the expanded opportunities already created, the expo also allowed businesses and institutions to find out what the Third Army community was looking for in preparations for the move. Karen Watson, gallery director, Sumter County Gallery of Art, said there will be a lot of benefits for retail businesses in the area that can work with incoming residents. Watson, who took over the gallery in June 2005, said she has been working hard to mold the gallery into one that meets the needs of the community, saying community outreach programs like the expo are allowing her to do so.

Overall, Jimmy Byrd, Sumter County council member for District 3, said the expo was a chance to get people comfortable with their new home and show that the city is ready to welcome newcomers with open arms.

"It was a great opportunity for Third Army and Family members to get to know the city and county," Felix said of the event. "It's a really great military community."

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16