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By JOSHUA COFFMAN
FRANKFORT — Members of the governor’s BRAC task force met Wednesday afternoon for the first time. They discussed what changes Fort Knox would undergo in the next few years from the Pentagon’s base realignment plan and how community and government agencies would react to foster thousands of additional soldiers, federal employees and family members.
Col. Mark Needham, Fort Knox garrison commander, sat in as an adviser to the panel, updating members on what units have arrived at the Army post and what local and state leaders can expect in the coming months.
The identity of Fort Knox will change, he said, as it shifts from “wrench turners and instructors” to one of “knowledge and management” for the Army — missions focused on recruiting command, human resources and information technology.
“What soldier do you have to send to where and at the right time?” he said, explaining the post’s changing mission.
Needham told task force members that several units, including the 19th Engineer Battalion, 3rd Sustainment Command Expeditionary and 502nd Bridge Company already have moved to the installation, with the latter arriving only weeks ago.
The additions have created a need for housing and other quality-of-life elements and the expansion already is stretching Fort Knox’s capacity.
Gymnasiums, chapels, soldier housing and the commissary cannot absorb all the growth, said Needham, noting that retirees who shop at the commissary already experience much longer lines.
“Certainly all that will have to be absorbed off post,” he said of housing. “That kind of thing is already happening.”
Senior officers already are seeking homes off post and the task force discussed the need for more hotels and restaurants in the area.
Adding to the log jam, the Army’s Armor Center, the largest component leaving Fort Knox under BRAC, will not vacate until 2011.
Plus the 1st Infantry’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team, currently deployed to Afghanistan, is coming earlier than expected.
An advance cadre will arrive this spring as new troops are processed into the brigade and the returning members will come home by next summer — in time to move their families and children to Kentucky ahead of the school year starting.
Needham said though the numbers of arrivals coming to Fort Knox has changed since the Defense Department announced its plan in 2005, the numbers have not went down.
Gov. Steve Beshear, who chairs the task force, often asked members, which include area development officials and state cabinet heads, if everything is staying on schedule to plan for the community growth.
“Is there anywhere that we’re not on top of our game?” he asked.
Joe Prather, head of the Transportation Cabinet and a Hardin County resident, responded that road plans — the most expensive aspect of infrastructure expected from BRAC growth — are in good shape, with a connector road between Elizabethtown and Radcliff probably being the furthest along in planning.
Beshear included $100 million in funding for BRAC projects with $50 million going toward transportation needs. The task force is responsible for doling out the money.
Prather said the $50 million allotment is “probably the most” the cabinet could spend in the next two years on design and environmental studies.
“We’re ready to move,” he said. “We’ve made it a priority.”
The average rank of a soldier or federal employee will increase from a G-8 to a G-10, as a result of the BRAC changes. Also, the number of residents with bachelor’s degrees in counties will jump, Needham said.
“And that population cares about education for their kids, too” he said.
Wendell Lawrence, executive director of Lincoln Trail Area Development District said an education page on a BRAC-based Web site has been the most accessed.
Needham said he talks with area school districts on a regular basis to ensure they are on track to secure what they need for the additional load of students.
“Whether that be bricks and mortar for new schools or more teachers,” he said. “BRAC is a shot in the arm of adrenaline for economic development. Education is the way to keep it going.”
Task force members said the $100 million financial commitment from the state shows the Pentagon that leaders in the Bluegrass are committed to helping expand Fort Knox. Discussion in the meeting also focused on getting help from the Department of Defense and Congress to cover the cost of expanding infrastructure.
Prather said, in the past, it was tough to get leaders in Frankfort to consider the Army post as an economic engine.
“We felt like we were voices in the wilderness,” he said.
Beshear commended legislators for keeping the funding intact in the budget and he seemed impressed with the amount of planning that had been done well ahead of Wednesday’s meeting.
“It’s very apparent to me that, obviously, a whole lot of work is already going on here and that’s good,” he said. “I’m looking forward to this. It’s very exciting for Kentucky.”
Although a date was not announced, Beshear said the task force likely would meet again in August.
Joshua Coffman can be reached at (270) 505-1740.