FORT LEE, Va. -- One of Fort Lee\'s very own has been recognized by the Petersburg Chamber of Commerce.

Esther T. Lee, deputy to U.S. Army Garrison Commander Col. Gwen Bingham, was awarded the Dr. F. Nathaniel Gatlin Award for her achievements in bridging gaps between the military and civilian communities during the ongoing Base Realignment and Closure process.

Lee, assigned to Fort Lee since 1996, works in a position similar to a city manager, overseeing the day-to-day operations of the installation. She said she is thankful for the honor, but noted her achievements were made possible through the hard work of many others.

"It's a wonderful honor," she said, "but I'm accepting it on behalf of the whole Fort Lee team because this has really been a team effort. There are a lot of people involved in making it successful both on and off post."

Lee has played a major role in BRAC implementation since the mid 1990s when persistent rumors surfaced that the installation would close. It did not close, of course, but it was realigned. The realignment included a downgrading the Kenner Army Community Hospital to a clinic in 1996. Lee remembers that episode in the BRAC implementation plan as one having a far-reaching impact.

"That was a pretty emotional event for Fort Lee and the retiree population it supported" she recalled, "losing the capability of a hospital and the additional medical specialty clinics as well as an emergency room."

The downgrade caused an outcry in the community from both Active-Duty and retired personnel alike.

"We managed to work our way through it, though," she said. "Through the great work of the folks at MEDCOM and Kenner, we worked out a great relationship with our TRICARE (medical) providers and also the surrounding hospitals that we're blessed with in this area."

Rumors of a Fort Lee closure persisted through subsequent rounds of BRAC until 2005. That's when Fort Lee was again realigned, but gained several new tenants and hundreds more troops and civilian workers. When the 2005 BRAC implementation is completed in 2011, Fort Lee will have more than $1.2 billion in new construction and will nearly double its current daily population.

Lee said the implementation effort is no small job, but she is honored to play a major role in the buildup.

"I feel fantastic," she said. "It's an awesome responsibility when you think about what all we're doing and what's going to happen in the next several years, the amount of construction and the organizational changes that are going to take place."

Under the 2005 plan, Fort Lee will become the new Sustainment Center of Excellence and become the center for logistics when the Army's Transportation School and Ordnance Center and School relocate here from Fort Eustis, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. and Redstone Arsenal, Ala., respectively.

Fort Lee will be further expanded with the addition of the Defense Contract Management Agency from northern Virginia and elements of the Defense Commissary Agency from several locations.

For as much effort as it will take to build and renovate facilities for the new tenants, it will take just as much effort to further build relationships with the surrounding communities to help facilitate the expected growth. The cities of Petersburg, Colonial Heights and Hopewell, and the counties of Dinwiddie, Chesterfield and Prince George are all likely to be impacted by the increased population.

The installation has taken a proactive approach in this effort, engaging in ongoing efforts to communicate its intent and requirements, solicit feedback and build partnerships that would help to accommodate the influx of Soldiers and civilians, most of whom will live in these surrounding communities.

"We had a good working relationship with the surrounding communities before BRAC," said Lee, "but BRAC has enhanced it. We've been able to build upon that foundation and working with them has been a joy."

Lee also said Fort Lee's senior leadership, the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Congressman J. Randy Forbes and others have been instrumental in helping to accomplish the many milestones under BRAC.

"We're blessed to have such support," she said.

Lee will receive her award Jan. 10 at the Lee Club. She will be joined by fellow recipients Jason Gray, representative to Forbes; Dennis Morris, executive director, Crater Planning District Commission; and Dr. James B. McNeer, president, Richard Bland College. Previous awardees include Va. Delegate Rosalyn R. Dance, former mayor of Petersburg, and B. David Canada, current city manager of Petersburg.

The Gatlin award had its inception in 1997. It is named for the founder of the Petersburg Symphony Orchestra and is given to those who have worked toward the betterment of the community.

(T. Anthony Bell writes for the Fort Lee Traveller.)