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Thousands of troops are en route to Fort Carson. What will it mean for the region?



Bruce Zielsdorf has his hands full. A spokesman for Fort Hood Army Post in Texas, Zielsdorfs trying to field questions about the relocation of soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division to Fort Carson which could begin in coming weeks.

Some of the soldiers may choose to stay in Texas and win reassignments, Zielsdorf says. Others may be eager to come, but will need time to plan. Still other soldiers may be reassigned to the division from the ranks of Fort Carson soldiers.

"Administratively, it's a nightmare," Zielsdorf says with a sigh. "But one that benefits the soldiers."

Local leaders could say something similar; on the administrative level, it's not much easier to receive than it is to give. Fort Carson, and the Colorado Springs area, are bracing for a personnel increase unparalleled in the 64-year-old installation's history.

The post has estimated that by 2011, its population will rise by as many as 10,000 soldiers. Those soldiers will bring with them 6,000 to 7,000 spouses, 8,000 to 9,000 children and hundreds more civilian personnel, according to a wide variety of experts interviewed by the Independent. Those figures promise impacts on schools, housing, business, public services, the environment virtually every aspect of life in the post's surrounding area.

Perhaps one of the biggest problems with the estimate, though, is that its only an estimate. Susan Galentine, a spokeswoman for Fort Carsons directorate of environmental compliance, says the tendency in planning is to err high, to account for all possible impacts. Of the expected rise in soldiers, dependents and personnel from 38,300 to 59,700, she says, Its a ballpark estimate.

So where does that leave the local community? The short answer is, in various states of planning and preparation. And, perhaps, united by a commitment to look at the big picture, which seems to portend good things for the economy in the years ahead.

"This is a positive story," says Robert MacDonald, executive director of the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments. "If the post was closing, this would be a different story. It's good news. The good news is that we're planning for the future of the region with Fort Carson."

Bottom line

A year ago, 22 major installations around the nation were slated for closure in coming years as part of a massive Defense Department transformation. When Brian Binn, president of military affairs for the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, received word that the closures were going to pass Fort Carson by, he was more than happy.

"We essentially knew no cuts were coming, but the growth part was a pleasant surprise," Binn says. He adds, "When all is said and done, [Fort Carson] will be one of the top five facilities in the Army."

One reason for the post's growth was its training space. In May 2005, a Department of Defense report to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, or BRAC, noted that Fort Carson had one of the military's largest contiguous training areas. And much of that area is equipped to handle the light and heavy brigades deemed critical to the nation's war on terrorism.

Granted, the rise in population as a result of Fort Carson expansion seems almost trivial compared to the roughly 777,000 people who already live in the fast-growing counties that surround the post. El Paso, Pueblo and Fremont counties are expected to house 851,000 total people by 2010, anyway.

But the post is a huge economic engine, representing 10 percent of all El Paso County's economic activity. Fort Carson already is the second-largest employer in Colorado, trailing only the state government.

The post's spending today which includes payroll, operations and more is a little over $1 billion a year, according to David Bamberger, a Pikes Peak region economist with David Bamberger & Associates. He estimates that the post's spending will rise by $700 million when the troops have arrived.

Assuming that 10,000 new troops arrive, he says an additional 7,900 local jobs will be created. These jobs will include everything from restaurant work to car sales.

The troops, after all, are expected to represent a big-spending demographic. Nearly half of them will be ages 17 to 24, and likely buyers of cars, homes, computers and video games. They'll also seek out the nightlife in Colorado Springs.

Growing pains

One of the first signs of the growth will be the presence of truckloads of construction workers at Fort Carson.

Roughly $1.2 billion is expected to be spent on more than two dozen construction projects to accommodate the influx of soldiers and their families.

The new buildings will include headquarters for the two-star general who leads the 4th Infantry Division, several motor pools, and facilities for an Army band, says Ed Whitcraft, a Fort Carson director of public works. First and foremost, they'll house hundreds of soldiers and many of their families.

But despite all the construction, there still will be a huge need for off-post housing some 70 percent will live off post. And herein lies one of the biggest challenges for the region, particularly for the neighborhoods around Fort Carson. Preliminary research shows that 1,000 off-post owner units and 4,500 off-post renter units will be needed.

"We can guess that the impacts will be in Fountain and southern Colorado Springs," says MacDonald, of the PPACG. "But we don't know where the renters will go, where the homebuyers will want to go."

It also appears obvious that with increased demand for, say, apartments, rents will rise.

"I suspect they will," Bamberger says.

Yet he notes that, as with nearly everything, it is hard to be sure at this point. Rent pressures are slowed by the constant cycle of Fort Carson soldiers to Iraq or Afghanistan, as well as high pre-existing vacancy rates.

Once soldiers and their families locate housing, there is the additional problem of how they'll get from the post to work to the supermarket in a region highly reliant on cars.

"A lot of soldier families can't afford to have two cars," MacDonald says. "There's a concern there if families are working."

This is one area where MacDonald's PPACG comes in, helping Colorado Springs transit officials to identify possible bus lines to better serve the Fort Carson area. The council also has taken the lead on securing more than $50 million in funding for road improvements, perhaps most notably around Fort Carson's Gate 20, long a hang-up for traffic near Interstate 25's exit 132.

To sharpen the picture on more elusive questions, the PPACG has embarked on a more than $500,000 study into the countless impacts of Fort Carson growth.

The 18-month study, which is already underway, is meant to determine where the growth will be most strongly felt.

It builds upon the work of the Colorado Defense Mission Coalition, a group that formed in 2005 to begin coordinating community needs. The PPACG will coordinate with the military and community.

"The study will help," MacDonald says. "For example, developers can decide where to build, even as far as Pueblo West, using this nformation. They're waiting for this information."

Schools are, too. Fountain-Fort Carson School District Eight, with 6,000 students, could see nearly 1,700 new students between 2005 and 2010 because of changes at Fort Carson.

"We're planning on growing quite a bit," says Cheryl Walker, assistant superintendent for business services at Fountain-Fort Carson School District. The district, which will open one new school in Fountain next fall, is unsure whether additional buildings will be necessary.

Myriad other impacts will be studied, including social services and public utilities.

Environmental concerns

In an environmental impact statement, Army planners have concluded that effects of the post's growth are largely insignificant or can be minimized, mitigated or repaired.

Noise may increase for surrounding communities, including El Rancho, Midway Ranch, Turkey Canyon Ranch and Fountain, reads an informational questions-and-answers brochure. Air quality would be adversely affected by increased emissions from operation of new combustion sources (associated with new facilities), increased traffic and increased training.

However, the post concludes, the increased emissions would not lead to violations of national standards. Any vegetation damaged by training would be repaired, according to the post.

Those concerns haven't generated as much concern as what the rising troop levels could mean for the future of southeast Colorado.

Fort Carson has proposed expanding its 235,000-acre Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site, nestled 24 miles south of La Junta, by another 418,000 acres, citing the need to train a rising number of troops for ongoing wars.

An ambiguous map showing a 1-million-acre, donut-shaped area represents the post's ambition. The swath includes cattle ranches, slices of the Purgatoire and Apishapa rivers, stretches of highways, a part of the historic Santa Fe Trail and a handful of small towns. Parcels of the Comanche National Grassland, including Picket Wire or Purgatoire Canyon, the site of an important dinosaur track site, dinosaur bone digs, ancient rock art and Colorado settlements, could all be absorbed.

Karen Edge, a spokeswoman for the post, has stated land would only be bought from willing sellers, but she won't rule out the possibility that eminent domain could be used.

Opponents of expanding the maneuver site came to Mesa Ridge High School last week to speak against the idea during a public-comment session on the environmental impacts associated with post expansion.

Though the session was meant to focus strictly on the impact surrounding Fort Carson and proposed changes for inside the existing maneuver site, dozens said Fort Carson's growth was on the brink of destroying southern Colorado's ranching industry, hunting and countless archaeological resources.

Tom Warren, Fort Carson's director of environmental compliance and management, refused to comment on the expansion during the session. He said that the idea isn't officially an Army plan, but an internal proposal.

Sarah Broce, a 17-year-old student from the ranching town of Kim, supported by a large group of students who joined her on the 160-mile, one-way trip to the hearing, delivered five boxes that she said were filled with 3,400 signatures opposing the expansion of the training site.

But the opposition isn't limited to the region. Many in Colorado Springs question the idea on the grounds that it will dramatically change the face of southern Colorado.

"Put [the land] in the bank for our children," said Steve Handen, a Colorado Springs resident.

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