By Fort Sill Cannoneer staffNovember 29, 2007
By Fort Sill Cannoneer Staff
Is the Lawton-Fort Sill community ready for the influx of Soldiers, civilians, families and weapons systems that are arriving from Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas by 2011, as mandated by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission'
In a word, an emphatic "absolutely."
That's according to Col. Douglas Bentley, Fort Sill deputy garrison commander for transformation, otherwise known as Fort Sill's BRAC guy. Bentley routinely briefs Army and community leaders from the local community and the surrounding area. He said things look good.
"We are postured for success," Bentley said. "There are 11 buildings going up. Off the top of my head, there's four AIT [Advanced Individual Training] barracks going up, there's a mess hall going up, there's three general instructional facilities, there's a maintenance facility and all of these things are on track. The first building comes online in October 2008 and the last one comes online in August 2009."
The Lawton-Fort Sill community is expected to get about 10,000 people between June 2006, when the 6th Battalion, 52nd Air Defense Artillery arrived, to September 2011, the deadline to complete BRAC-related moves as mandated by the U.S. Congress.
Bentley said the city of Lawton is leaving no stone unturned as they look at the city's schools, housing, transportation, infrastructure and public safety.
"Everyone is being very proactive and leaning forward in the foxhole to make this happen," Bentley said.
Lawton City Manager
There have been concerns expressed by civic leaders and media in El Paso, Texas, where Fort Bliss is located, that Lawton-Fort Sill can't accommodate the 10,000 Soldiers, families and government employees that will eventually arrive, according to Lawton city leaders.
Outside Fort Sill's gates, officials from Lawton said there are still some things to take care of, but Lawton is moving in the right direction.
"I think we're as prepared as we can be, given where we are in the process," Larry Mitchell, Lawton city manager, said. "Starting out, I think we thought we were a little bit behind the curve, but I think we have made a lot of progress in the last six to nine months."
Mitchell said he thinks the housing issue is under control. The biggest obstacle he sees is public transportation.
"That's strictly because we are very limited in the resources we have locally and we're very dependant upon programs that may be funded through the state or the federal government for major improvements," Mitchell said. "We're still working on the transportation issue."
Off post housing
The sounds of construction fill the air in the Lawton-Fort Sill community as new homes and apartments are prepared for Soldiers and government employees moving to the area beginning Aug. 1, 2008 as part of the latest round of BRAC.
Builders are providing enough affordable houses to make moving an easy transition, according to a local realty expert.
There are currently 200 existing houses in the $100,000 to $150,000 price range, according to Barry Ezerski, a local realtor for ReMax. Contractors and companies are building 200 additional houses in the same price range, he said.
In addition to homes, there are six apartment complexes being built that will add about two thousand additional housing units in the Lawton-Fort Sill area.
"In the next year, there will be a lot to choose from. There is a good selection at a decent price," said Ezerski.
He said an influx in housing and people has made Lawton an attractive place for many national retailers that have overlooked Lawton in the past. There will be new shopping centers and a variety of new restaurants he said.
"This is an exciting time for Lawton, it gives us a chance to really shine," said Ezerski.
Meeting with Team Bliss
Mitchell recently met with members from the Team Bliss Strategic Planning Office during their trip to Lawton. Mitchell said the team admitted they had a preconceived idea of Lawton as they flew in, but that impression was entirely different by the time they left.
"Their feedback was very positive," Mitchell said. "They look at news on a Web site or read the paper and that gives them one impression. Once they've been in the community for two or three days, they're very excited about the relationship that Fort Sill and our community has and they like what Lawton has to offer."
He said the two committee members had called their spouses and expressed a desire to speed up their relocation to Lawton.
Phone calls and e-mails to the committee members were not returned for this article.
Mitchell said part of the problem is information about exactly how many people and who they are has not been forthcoming from El Paso. So, Lawton planners are working off of inexact numbers.
"We're making a lot of guesses as to who might or might not be moving," he said.
Mitchell said he's heard some of the vocal opposition from El Paso. He hopes they give the area a chance.
"I think they're going to be pleasantly surprised when they get here," Mitchell said.
While preparation for the move of 31st Air Defense Artillery Brigade in August 2008 is evident with new construction on post, the newest addition to Fort Sill's artillery community has been on post more than a year.
The 6th Battalion, 52nd ADA, commanded by Lt. Col. Artice Scott, made the transition from Germany to Fort Sill when they started unloading rail cars full of equipment in July 2006.
"I think the unit has settled in very well. It's been about 17 months on the ground with equipment with families and I think we are doing extremely well," he said.
In preparation for the brigade move, a pre-deployment site survey was completed on Fort Sill, including information on what to expect in the community as well as the programs available on post recalls Scott.
"In all cases do your homework," he advised. "Find out what is available here, you already know what your expectations are from an installation, from a township and from a community. Try to match up those things as best as you can and bring a winning attitude."
The training aspect for the ADA had a larger transition to make, moving from the stable stationary hard stands of Germany to the mobile launching areas needed at Fort Sill. Bridges had to be reinforced to handle the weight of the ADA gear and the Lawton -Fort Sill Regional Airport had to correlate their equipment and schedule with the new unit.
"Here we had some unexpected issues, but good leaders always adapt and overcome. I don't think it was to the point that inhibits air defense from training for its mission. Were there some hurdles' Yeah. Did we overcome them' Yes, all in all the post looked out for us. For not knowing Air Defense, they did all they could to try to assume what would be expected of Air Defense movement onto this post," said Scott.
As an officer, husband and father who already went through the Bliss-to-Sill change, Scott offers advice to all those involved in the BRAC program.
"The one thing that is going to make this all work is pulling together as a team," Scott said. "It's not about air defense, it's not about field artillery, it's about Soldiers and their families, and when you match that up and put it together, everything else will fall into place. The Soldiers will fall into place, the families will fall into place, and we will have a greater installation than we had by mixing the two together."
Scott is not the only ADA commander who sees the relocation instituted by BRAC in a positive light.
"The way ahead is positive and bright as we begin to transform additional forces to the installation in the near future," said Col. Christopher Putko, 31st ADA Brigade commander.
Lawton Public Schools is used to growth and already planning ahead, according to Barry Beauchamp, the schools superintendent.
The school system is currently remodeling and upgrading facilities as part of a $42 million bond issue passed in 2004, but is also planning on asking tax payers for another bond to fund growth projected into 2010. School planners estimate the system will have 19,000 students enrolled that year.
"We're looking at submitting another bond issue for about $35 million to voters to continue the improvements in facilities and technology equipment and transportation equipment," Beauchamp said. The new bond issue would spark construction of new elementary schools and annexes at other schools.
"It takes two years to build any building and you can't wait until the students show up," Beauchamp said.
Beauchamp said LPS can deal with 12 percent growth in three years thanks to experienced teachers.
"Our average classroom experience is 14 years," Beauchamp said. "Our teaching staff here is mobile like our student population, but the teachers we get in through the military, the spouses of the military officers and enlisted, come in with significant experience and we're able to capitalize on that. They're a real attribute to our community."
The superintendant said the experience of these well-traveled and seasoned educators gives them a broad perspective that helps bring the world to Lawton students.
It helps give Lawton schools a boost over the rest of the state, he said.
"All of our schools significantly exceed the requirements of our state," Beauchamp said about the schools standardized testing results from the previous year.
Several school systems in Oklahoma made national headlines when they were on the list of "drop-out factories" (school systems that graduated less than half of the students enrolled at the start of ninth grade). Lawton, with a large transient population, doesn't have that problem.
"Those are difficult statistics because a lot of the time you [school administrators] don't know what happened to a child," Beauchamp said. "They check out and you don't know if they dropped out or left because you never get a request from anybody for records. We currently show a graduation rate of 85 percent."
Lawton schools make extra effort to help the children of Soldiers. When the strain of repeated deployments stressed military families, Lawton schools expanded the counseling available to students of military families. Beauchamp said the system also has a working group of educators, military parents and students to help identify issues affecting military students. That group recently recommended that students greet incoming students during the summer to help them adjust to the school and the area, Beauchamp said.
"We want to help those students establish a network even before we start with the official enrollment and start school," Beauchamp said. "We're trying to be pro-active in helping students move past that challenge."
He said the Lawton schools wants to help those students because Lawton is Army. He said his family includes a retired general and a retired colonel.
"I've got two nephews stationed in Iraq right now," Beauchamp said. His family, an Army family, moved to Lawton shortly after he was born. He's lived here since and worked as a teacher or administrator in the local schools for 34 years.
Lawton's main institution of higher learning, Cameron University, has been one of the leading institutions dedicated to not only the student community of Lawton, but also to the Fort Sill community.
"Cameron has had a very long history of being supportive of the military, part of the mission and vision statements include in being available and providing outreach programs and educational opportunities for the Soldiers at Fort Sill," said Sylvia M. Burgess, associate vice-president for academic affairs.
Soldiers are also not limited to commuting to and from post to get classes.
"We've offered, historically, courses and continue to offer courses not just on campus but also on Fort Sill as well," Burgess said.
Attentive to the needs of the Fort Sill community to ensure that there is any opportunity to continue their education.
"We've been proactive, in trying to find out the needs of the Soldiers for different types of programs," Burgess said.
Burgess said a strong reason for the development of online programs was due to the ongoing cycles of deployment.
"We would have Soldiers in the middle of programs and they would have to be deployed," she said. "In order to try to meet those needs, we began to develop a number of online programs so that they could still undertake coursework while they were deployed, wherever they happen to go."
Working with the military
The school is also developing more courses to fit the needs of the military.
"There is a movement to develop an educational leadership or a leadership oriented-type of degree program that is designed to specifically to meet the needs articulated by the military," Burgess said.
They are also proactively planning for the Soldiers of Fort Bliss that will augment the growing community of Fort Sill and Lawton.
"As part of BRAC, obviously we have a large number of military folks coming in," Burgess said. "The university has been looking very hard at what sorts of opportunities are available, what sorts of things we can do to help prepare for the influx, whether there are additional degree programs they need, in fact a number of surveys have been developed," she added.
"A very large part of developing and initiating a survey that goes to the Soldiers and dependants at Fort Bliss is trying to figure what sorts of needs in particular that they have."
The university also works to ensure that veteran benefits afforded to military service members are afforded to them in a timely manner.
"We have staff at Cameron that work with the Veteran's Administration and work with military assistance benefits to try to make that as seamless as possible so it's as easy as possible for the military to take our courses, to get enrolled and to do what they need to do."
Cameron reached its centennial this year, along with the state of Oklahoma, and acknowledged that, though they are a smaller university, their services are second to none.
"We have the luxury of being a small school that provides a very intensive education and faculty care," Burgess said. "We offer private quality education at public education costs."
Burgess also added that with smaller classes the teachers get to know the students and even act as counselors and career advisors for them.
"The faculty helps them find jobs," Burgess said. "Our students tend to become parts of our extended families, because we care about what happens, she added. "We want their success, so we work towards their success."
Burgess, who is also the chairman of the chamber of commerce, said the community of Fort Sill is very much a part of the Lawton community.
"We're continuously very attentive to the needs of the military community," Burgess said. "We have a co-op program that is extraordinary."
"This community is very integrated, they're all parts of it, the education system, the business system, all of them work very hard to meet the needs of their Fort Sill partners and include them in everything that we do."
Along with Cameron University, the Fort Sill Education Center offers college courses from Pikes Peak Community College, the University of Oklahoma, Webster University. Mid-America Christian University and Lawton's Great Plains Technology Center.
Development around the Fort Sill outlying areas have been conducted through the city of Lawton.
As a proactive step, Lawton's mayor, John Purcell, formed the Mayor's BRAC Coordination Committee, comprised of representatives from throughout the region.
"Each of the surrounding communities showed an interest in coming together to recognize and discuss growth management issues and to develop a plan to solve the issues collectively," said Kevin Jackson, senior city planner for the city of Lawton.
They also hired the independent contracting company Carter and Burgess to assist in the development of plans for managing the growth and impact of BRAC.
A study was conducted on areas that are 25 minutes or less from the nearest Fort Sill gate said Douglas Tennant, Oklahoma project manager for Carter and Burgess.
"Since this area conforms generally to the boundaries of 14 local school districts, the study area was altered to conform to the applicable school districts and the communities within them," said Tennant.
The communities within the study area include: Apache, Cache, Central High, Chattanooga, Cyril, Elgin, Faxon, Fletcher, Geronimo, Indiahoma, Medicine Park, Sterling and Walters, according to Tennant.
Due to the considerable influx of personnel integrating into the Lawton-Fort Sill community, the plan will forecast the residential and commercial growth that will be anticipated, said Tennant.
"Preliminary research indicates that the communities of Lawton, Cache and Elgin are expected to feel the greatest pressure for growth," Tennant said.
"Additionally, many of the smaller outlying communities are anticipating their fair share of the residential growth that is expected, and similarly, these communities are evaluating their ability to provide the necessary community infrastructure to accommodate this growth," he added.
Both Tennant and Jackson said they have time to work out any potential issues that might arise, they both said work has already begun on several projects.
"While our planning efforts are still in the preliminary stages, there are several ongoing projects and upgrades that will affect the areas immediately adjacent to the fort and each will have an impact on the fort's ability to accomplish its current and potential future missions," said Jackson.
Some of those efforts include extending the runway at Lawton-Fort Sill Regional
Airport 1,400 feet to allow for the Air Force's C-5 Galaxy heavy transport aircraft and improving the traffic flow at Fort Sill's gates.
"The city of Lawton is working with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to improve state highways that are going to accommodate traffic going in and out of Fort Sill," said Jackson
"Recent improvements to Interstate 44 have assisted the fort personnel and regional travelers, and a more extensive project is planned to relieve the congestion at Key Gate," he added.
(Cannoneer staff writers Hiro Chang, Jennifer Lindquist, Keith Pannell and Kevin Young contributed to this article)