AUGUSTA, Ga. — The Army Cyber Command that’s set to come to Fort Gordon is considered by many community leaders to be the best news for the area economy since Savannah River Site in the 1950s.
But some of those same people question whether the area is prepared to handle the growth that will come with it.
“The challenge that we have right now is people really don’t get how big this is… and this is a fast-moving train,” said Thom Tuckey, executive director of the CSRA Alliance for Fort Gordon.
The Army’s Dec. 19 announcement it will consolidate and grow the Army Cyber Command on the Richmond County military base brought a promise of thousands of new military, government civilian and contractor jobs and an accompanying real estate boom.
Like SRS’ rapid injection of 25,000 jobs into the region 60 years ago, the Cyber Command will have a significant impact on the area economy over a short period. But unlike the SRS jobs, Cyber Command is poised to stay indefinitely, as the Department of Defense headquarters one of its two highest national security priorities – cyber warfare – in Augusta, Tuckey said.
Created in Augusta over the next five years will be a highly-skilled, high-earning workforce of noncommissioned officers earning $50,000 or more, government civilian employees earning $70,000 and up and upper-level commissioned officers taking home $100,000 and beyond – and no new housing is being constructed for them on post, he said.
Army estimates show 202 jobs created next year in construction and operations of a new, 179,056 square-foot facility on Fort Gordon to house the new command, and an associated 83 “induced,” associated jobs that arise because of the development, with a $13 million labor income impact. By 2017, the numbers grow to 1,026, with a $62 million income impact.
Then in 2019, when Cyber Command is expanded to planned levels, the Army estimates 2,029 jobs, including more than 1,514 directly created jobs and 515 induced, with an annual income impact of $154 million, to continue “for the foreseeable future.”
Alvin Mason, one of several on the 10-member Augusta Commission with a military background, said many Augustans don’t realize that as most U.S. military installations are reducing, Augusta’s is growing.
“We have to understand the enormity of it all,” Mason said. “The landscape of Augusta, Georgia, is about to change, and I don’t think this city realizes that.”
Despite the prevalence of retired military and military families who have settled here over the last century, most residents don’t appreciate how the development turns the national spotlight on Augusta, including its local government, Mason said. He and another Army retiree on the commission, Bill Lockett, said they wished the commission would quit petty bickering and focus on the big picture.
Lockett noted, “We can talk about economic development until the cows come home, but until we change, others on the outside are not going to realize we have lots to offer.”
That said, both commissioners agreed that an immediate increase in staffing for the city’s Planning and Development department, as requested by new Director Melanie Wilson, is needed to help remedy the blight that’s spread along the roads – Gordon Highway and Deans Bridge Road – that flank the base’s northern and southern boundaries.
Along Gordon Highway, which forms the boundary between Fort Gordon and Columbia County, ill-maintained properties are unwelcoming to visitors and business prospects alike, Lockett said.
“In the condition it’s in now, even though we’ve got such a large amount of people coming in, many of them are going to turn left into Grovetown or Columbia County, not into Richmond County,” he said. “We need to concentrate heavily on Gordon Highway, on Deans Bridge Road, all the way out to Fort Gordon.”
While it may not be where the bulk of the new Army families choose to live – two-thirds of Fort Gordon children already attend Columbia County schools – Augusta should hardly ignore the potential for development arising from the Cyber Command, Tuckey said.
Augusta should realize the city will benefit from increased retail – including a large office complex in the works near the post – and all the associated tax and fee revenue, without the demands of a large influx of new residents, Augusta Commissioner Donnie Smith said.
“In this particular thing, we come out better. We’re going to benefit from the sales taxes, property taxes, business licenses,” Smith said.
Moreover as a lower-income county, Augusta can offer far greater tax savings and other perks for the contracting and other businesses en route, including some that are here simply because the Cyber Command is here, he said.
“Commercial office space is going to be at a premium,” he said. “Cyber contractors … will want to be here, because this is the Cyber Capital.”
If the Augusta side of Fort Gordon is a bit blighted, north of the post is a story of Columbia County residential explosion, with much new residential growth around Grovetown and other areas near Fort Gordon.
That, and an agreeable governing body has left the conservative county prepared to handle whatever residential growth comes its way, said Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson.
“We’re pretty nimble; we’ll just do what we have to do,” Johnson said. “One thing you have to look at is we’ve had 39 percent population growth and a lot of it had to do with military families. When you’ve grown as fast as Columbia County, you’ve got to stay ahead of the curve, and we’ve been doing similar things for the past several years.”
Despite the growth – the county’s population is now around 130,000 – there is plenty of room for more, particularly in western Columbia County, he said.
Among numerous areas in need of extensive study, planning and preparation, such as ensuring adequate health care and social services are available – is traffic.
A significant proposal that has arisen in response to the command’s arrival is to create a new entrance – near Lewiston Road – to Fort Gordon between Gate 1 at Jimmie Dyess Parkway in Augusta and Gate 2 in Grovetown, then close Gate 2, which is highly congested, Tuckey said.
The new gate, set further inside the post, will help avoid traffic jams that leave traffic backed up, he said.
Planning for the command is no minor task. The Alliance, initially formed to address the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, is assembling committees and panels to study the command’s numerous needs and demands and compile an extensive set of plans over the next year or so that could cost nearly $1 million, Tuckey said. They hope to pay for it through state and federal grants, but may also seek contributions from the community.
“I’ve done 12 presentations in 12 days, so folks get an idea this is a big deal. This is not something that three or four people can go in a back room and knock out,” he said.
While Richmond County is considering closing or consolidating several of its public schools, it has a SPLOST 4 alternative project on the books to construct an elementary school in southwest Richmond County should the need arise, said Benton Starks, senior director of facilities services for the school system.
Unlike Columbia County, the under-enrolled system has capacity to absorb several thousand students, although available classroom space isn’t necessarily at schools near the post, he said.
Columbia County will likely wind up educating most of the command’s 2,000-plus children, if county officials’ expectations are correct.
Even with new schools in the pipeline, portable classrooms in Columbia County are almost inevitable, Tuckey said.
Columbia County school board member Roxanne Whitaker said the system is anticipating about 1,750 new students from the command over the next few years, but an ongoing rezoning plan should alleviate crowding at schools near the post before then. The system has a new sales-tax-funded school already approved by voters, and plans to complete a larger Harlem Middle School, larger Grovetown Elementary and enlarge North Harlem Elementary with the next SPLOST.
Whitaker, A native of the tiny Columbia County municipality of Harlem, said she had no qualms about the influx of residents.
“It’s always exciting to see new people come in; with new people come new ideas.”
The town of about 2,700 has long been an enclave for retired military and is already streamlining processes for developers to get approval for subdivision developments to aid the new growth, according to Harlem City Manager Jason Rizner.
“We’re really excited about it, and we’re working on revising our zoning ordinances.” The community hopes its “unique, small-town character” will attract Cyber Command families, he said.