FORT BENNING, Ga., Sept. 21, 2011 -- Years of planning, along with a few billion dollars in renovations and construction, officially came to fruition Sept. 15 as the Maneuver Center of Excellence met the Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, deadline for full operating capacity.

With the Armor School's transfer from Fort Knox, Ky., complete, post leaders discussed the way ahead for the Maneuver Center and Fort Benning during a press conference at the newly restored MCoE headquarters building. The entire installation will mark the occasion Friday at the "BRAC: To the Future!" festival on nearby York Field.

"This will be the biggest celebration ever on post," said Maj. Gen. Robert Brown, the MCoE and Fort Benning commanding general. "We're celebrating Armor finally being down here. They're a part of our family now and the whole community."

Col. Tom James, the Armor School commandant, said the organization has about 2,300 Soldiers and civilians. While roughly half made the move from Fort Knox, others were reassigned here from elsewhere as the process unfolded.

"We've closed out everybody at Fort Knox that's going to be here," he said. "We're fully forced and excited to be at Fort Benning."

Unifying the Infantry and Armor schools at a single location will have a profound impact on Army operations and training moving forward, the leaders said.

"We fight together, and we learned years ago how effective combined-arms maneuver can be," Brown said, "but it's tough to train together when you're apart back home. I have come across Infantry second lieutenants who had never even seen a tank in person before they went into combat. That doesn't make any sense to me."

"Here, they can get exposed, and we can train together. It's going to have a huge impact. Combined-arms maneuver and fighting jointly is critical to our success."

Col. Walter Piatt, the Infantry School commandant, said Fort Benning will continue providing the Army with trained, ready forces, and the consolidation of both branches here is only going to add to the Maneuver Center's relevance.

"The Soldiers who train here are going to be even better," he said. "We're going to lead the way for the Army in how we train our Soldiers for the future."

Brown praised the BRAC plan put in motion and hard work by a cast of thousands, including his predecessors -- Lt. Gen. Michael Ferriter and retired Maj. Gen. Walter Wojdakowski. The roadmap was so well conceived it practically ran on "auto pilot," he said.

"It's all about precision," James said. "(Armor and Infantry formations) deal with an objective area that requires it. We can dissect that area together, and it starts with training. Now that the schoolhouses are in the same place, we can feel the synergy and power of it."

The MCoE will teach 195 courses and programs of instruction and train about 145,000 Soldiers and leaders a year, including 30 percent of all civilians coming into the Army.

Although construction will continue around post through 2016, the multitude of requirements that went into creating the Maneuver Center have been accomplished, Brown said. Dixie Road, the Good Hope training area and a few other ranges are among the BRAC projects still under way.

"We're perfect space-wise," he said. "We have more than enough (ranges) to do our mission. In fact, we have the highest range-utilization rate in the Army."

Finalizing a campaign plan for 2015 is the MCoE's top priority, the general said. The schools are focusing on the future and the significant role the command plays in reshaping Army training, doctrine and requirements for the maneuver force, which faces an increasingly complex battlefield.

In addition to cultivating the baseline requirements and model for 21st-century maneuver training, other MCoE initiatives include the "Squad: Foundation of the Decisive Force" and Brigade Combat Team 2020. The leaders said cutting-edge technology and equipment will always be pushed, but not at the expense of a human dimension that goes into Soldier skills and leader development.

"Our best weapon on the ground is the Soldier. It comes down to people," Piatt said. "It's all about their minds and physical abilities. How do we develop that better in the future, when the challenges are going to be even more difficult?"

Armor was the largest chunk of MCoE transformation but not the only one, Fort Benning officials said. It also includes consolidation of an Armed Forces Reserve Center and relocation of the 43rd Equipment Concentration Site from Fort Gillem, Ga.

Brown thanked the Columbus and Phenix City, Ala., communities for its longstanding support of Fort Benning and said the relationship remains solid.

"We have big-city capability in a small-town atmosphere," he said of the tricommunity. "We're excited, and the future is bright. We're actually pretty lucky here in the Chattahoochee Valley -- so many other places are shrinking because of the economy. We're growing."

MCoE HQ dedication set for Friday:

Fort Benning's newly renovated headquarters building will be dedicated at 8 a.m. Friday.
The building will be named McGinnis-Wickham Hall for two Medal of Honor recipients, Spc. Ross A. McGinnis and Cpl. Jerry W. Wickham.

McGinnis was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his actions during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2006. He trained to be an Infantry Soldier at Fort Benning with the 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment, 198th Infantry Brigade.

Wickham was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his actions near Loc Ninh, Republic of Vietnam, in 1968. He trained to be an Armored Cavalry Soldier at Fort Knox, Ky.

The building was first officially dedicated in June 1964. A contract to renovate the building was awarded in 2008, and phase I of the $155 million overhaul is now complete. Phase II, scheduled for completion in Spring 2012, will complete the restoration of the building's east and west wings.

The new headquarters building was built to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, silver standards and incorporates sustainability and "green" measures into both its design and construction. By weight, 90 percent of the items removed during the renovation, to include glass, concrete, steel, doors and aluminum, were recycled. Larger windows will take advantage of natural lighting and reduce energy consumption.

In August, nearly 550 personnel returned to the building. When Phase II is complete, more than 800 employees and students will occupy the building daily.