Whatever you think you know about the growth out at Fort Gordon, you’re probably wrong. According to Garrison Commander Colonel Sam Anderson, the growth is going to be more — and going to happen quicker — than most people think.
“There’s a lot more to the growth than just Army Cyber Command Headquarters,” Anderson says. “That’s what has gotten all the press and attention, and rightfully so, but the actual number of humans that is associated with that growth is not that large. There is a whole lot of other growth that is happening.”
Since the December announcement that Fort Gordon would become home for the Army’s Cyber Command Headquarters and the Cyber Center of Excellence, all the buzz has centered around this new command, which is due to be operational in 2019, and for good reason. Because it is central to the Army’s evolving mission, it virtually assures that Fort Gordon won’t suffer a base closure or the drawdown that nearly every other installation in the Army is currently facing.
In short, cyber is the future.
“The two most important areas in the military right now are special operations and cyber,” Anderson says. “So one of the two most important components of our national defense is going to be housed at Fort Gordon. That’s what makes this so significant.”
But if you think we’ve got until 2019 to prepare for all that new growth, think again.
“Everybody talks about Army Cyber Headquarters, and it has a significant impact to this community — I don’t dispute that,” Anderson says. “But in terms of real humans actually impacting your facilities, the most people are going to start doing that soon — much sooner than 2017 or 2019.”
Because the other elements of this growth are already established and don’t need to wait for the construction of the headquarters, Anderson says he expects 2,200 of the 3,700 projected people to arrive between now and September 2015, the majority — 1,500 — arriving by this September.
That’s 1,500 new arrivals this year alone.
The 7th Signal Command, which is already a tenant on the installation, has been given the mission to stand up for what is called a Cyber Protection Brigade. In essence, they will be the soldiers that go out and do cyber business on a deployment, supporting a combatant commander. This group alone is about 700 people.
Also added to Fort Gordon is an aerial intelligence brigade. Because Fort Gordon doesn’t have a runway on the installation, the aviation components of the unit are located at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah. Anderson says he expects anywhere from 800-1,000 people to support that mission, most of whom will be military, though some will also be government civilians.
And because the NSA facility located at Fort Gordon is manned with joint forces, the Air Force and Navy units attached to Fort Gordon are growing on two fronts — continuing to put intelligence assets in support of the NSA mission and establishing cyber capabilities of their own.
“The Air Force and Navy also want to get into the cyber business, and they’re establishing cyber units as well,” he says. “And where is the best place for any service to put a cyber unit now? Fort Gordon.”
All that plus the Cyber Command Headquarters adds up to the 3,700 number that everyone’s been quoting, but that’s only part of the story.
According to Army projection models, the 2,600 military personnel will bring with them 1,500 spouses, 1,300 school-aged children and 1,200 other dependents. Add the 900 civilians and who they will bring with them and the number climbs even higher.
“Those 3,700 people have 5,600 people tied to them, so we’re really talking about 10,000 humans in some form or fashion — driving cars, going to schools, going to restaurants and trying to get into the gate,” he says. “And I’m not even talking about other economic impacts that will come into the community because we’re here.”
Thinking about those other economic opportunities is Robbie Bennett, the executive director of the Development Authority of Columbia County, who likens the growth to a similar boom that happened in the 1970s and 1980s along what’s called Augusta’s Miracle Mile, where E-Z-Go, Kelloggs, and Procter & Gamble all built facilities.
“You had large-scale growth during that period,” he says. “I truly believe the region — the region, not just Columbia County — is on the brink of a significant growth period like that.”
The announcement and its potential impact has even changed the parameters of his job a bit.
“Part of my job now is to prepare Columbia County for those third-party government contractors that may come in,” he says. “We want to make sure we’re ready for that growth.”
To do that, he’s currently identifying large tracts of land for possible use as industrial parks and office parks, along with looking for smaller areas that might be right for individual companies. When it comes to economic development, not every piece of the jigsaw puzzle is the same size.
Bennett says he’s optimistic about Fort Gordon’s potential to spur supporting businesses.
“It’s not that I see it as a given that this is going to happen,” he says. “But I see a high probability that you will see significant growth both in the contractor segments as well as technology companies.
The wildcard, he says, is the multiplier effect, which states that a manufacturer might create two additional jobs for every job of its own it creates. When applied to tech companies, the additional jobs created can climb to as high as five.
“I can’t say we’re going to have the same growth as Silicon Valley, but what I can say is that, as a community, as a region, being prepared for this growth is going to make that growth that much more successful.”
A more immediate concern, however, are those 10,000 humans driving cars and trying to get in the gate. Already, traffic analysis has found Gate One to have a very poor traffic flow. On a good day, traffic is backed up from the gate to Gordon Highway. On a bad day, it can stretch all the way up Jimmie Dyess Parkway to Zaxby’s.
“You can’t run a business this way,” Anderson says. “The post was designed to house soldiers who are coming here for training. It was not designed to do the things that it’s being told to do now.”
It’s not just getting on the installation, however. Inside, traffic can back up because so much of it is headed to the NSA facility. Because the new Cyber Command Headquarters is going to be added on to the Whitelaw Building, that number is only going to increase.
The answer, Anderson says, is to build a new six-lane gate on Gordon Highway to the west of the existing gate infrastructure.
“We want to put it far enough to the west that it makes it the main gate,” he says. “We want to make Gate One not as desirable. That’s the idea with traffic. People will pick the path of least resistance, so we want to put it somewhere that meets the needs of the community.”
And because the NSA compound is in that area of Fort Gordon, a new gate located there would dump most of the traffic directly at the facility, relieving many of Fort Gordon’s internal traffic issues.
The problem, of course, is money. Anderson estimates his piece of the new gate will cost approximately $20 million, and even if he convinces the Army to give him the money, the quickest he could expect it is by 2020, a year after all 3,700 people and the 5,600 people they’re bringing with them are expected to be in place.
“If the Chief of Staff of the Army said, ‘It makes sense to me,’ I could potentially have a spade in the ground in 2021,” he says.
As bad as that sounds, he expects the delay to be even longer outside the gate, where local and state agencies will have to scramble to fund and construct their own infrastructure to feed into it.
“I really do believe that we’re going to have to live with it for the most part,” he says of the increasing traffic problems. “I think we’re going to have problems for quite a while.”
The irony of it all, Anderson says, is that traffic impact was a deciding factor that brought the Cyber Command mission to Fort Gordon. Officials making the decision felt the traffic would be less detrimental here that it would have been at Fort Meade, home of the U.S. Cyber Command, which is located between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland.
Anderson stresses that while the general framework of the growth is certain, the specific numbers associated with it can vary, and he cautions people to keep that in mind when considering how to react to it.
“We recognize that these numbers are out there and people are going to use them for planning, and we’re comfortable with that,” he says. “But I don’t want people to make financial decisions based off something that the Army briefs them on. We don’t do economic development, we do Army stuff.”