The uniform commercial code

The troop buildup and new Army commands at Fort Bragg are creating an economic windfall for communities around it.
By Edward Martin

The night is hot, the beer cold, the neon bright. Rick’s Lounge, which anchors Hay Street — “Combat Alley” — in downtown Fayetteville, is packed. Was it last week they had the naked woman with the python? There’s a topless dancer tonight. But wasn’t she the one out there on the street in hot pants just now? The weathered cognoscenti laugh. Easy mistake. They’re identical twins. For $20, either will tell a guy anything he wants to hear, truth notwithstanding.

“Damned leg!” In the shank of the evening, someone bellows the lowest insult a paratrooper can hurl here. Anybody — regular infantryman, traveling salesman, hayseed out on the town — without the guts to jump out of an airplane with an M16 and 90 pounds of combat gear is a “straight leg.” Paratroopers are taught to bend their knees before hitting the ground. Fists fly, and bodies spill outside. Somebody swings a longneck, blood and beer mix on the sidewalk, and the MPs and local cops storm in.

Forty-odd years later and 10 miles north of downtown, beyond a broad gash in the earth where they’re constructing a $270 million link of the Interstate 295 bypass, a massive building is getting its finishing polish. Graceful curves camouflage its bulk. At 700,000 square feet, this is the largest construction project under way in North Carolina. It’s costing $290 million, part of a five-year, $2.8 billion military buildup at Fort Bragg. “Lots of folks refer to this as Pentagon South,” says Jim Hinnant, a former Army lieutenant colonel, 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper and helicopter pilot.

This is the headquarters of the arriving U.S. Army Forces Command and its subordinate Army Reserve Command, the nation’s largest military command, responsible for 750,000 active-duty and reserve troops worldwide. Hinnant, an Army spokesman, brakes his weathered Ford pickup at a siding off the freshly paved road near the building. “This is the ‘kiss and ride’ drop-off,” he explains, part of the logistical miracle it will take to deliver and retrieve nearly 2,800 civilians and soldiers each workday, including three dozen generals, the most under one roof except the Pentagon’s.

Change is the order of the day here, and not just behind Fort Bragg’s razor wire and gatehouses. Ten miles to the northeast, in the piney woods toward Sanford, nail guns chatter like a firing range. At Richmond Park, one of scores of housing developments springing up in Cumberland, Harnett and surrounding counties, military families are moving into models like the $254,900, four-bedroom, 2,800-square-foot Newport. At the entrance, bulldozers lumber about, widening once leisurely two-lane N.C. 87, now jammed bumper-to-bumper.

This is the federal Base Realignment and Closure Act of 2005 on the move, in double time. Nationwide, branches of the military are shifting and consolidating bases for economy and efficiency, but nowhere else is it being done on North Carolina’s scale. In four years, Cumberland and surrounding counties will see an explosion of more than 40,000 service members, their families, and owners and employees of hundreds of defense contractors and other civilian enterprises. North Carolina’s gain is Georgia’s loss, as BRAC closes Fort McPherson, hemmed in by suburban Atlanta, and moves the 6,000 military and civilian jobs of its two huge commands, along with others, to Fort Bragg.

Once embarrassed by the military presence, Fayetteville is now as proud of the Army as Charlotte is of Bank of America Corp. “In 2009, we were Michelle Obama’s first visit outside of Washington,” says three-term mayor Tony Chavonne, who grew up here in a military family. “She came to thank our community for its support of the military. And last year, Time magazine named us the most military-friendly community in the country.” Many trace the change in sentiment to 9/11, but it dates back to the birth of the volunteer Army in the 1970s, which brought a family friendliness unknown to servicemen who had been told: “If the Army wanted you to have a wife, it would have issued you one.” No attachments, no longing for home, no undue grief to deal with if … Anyway, there was always home away from home — Rick’s and its dozens of rivals along Bragg Boulevard, the nine-mile strip of bars, streetwalkers and pawnshops that stretched from base to downtown.

That changed, as did the soldiers themselves, who were no longer paupers in uniform. In 1991, with the first Gulf War, thousands of rapid-deployment troops would disappear overnight, and car dealers, apartment owners, restaurateurs and merchants sweated as the local economy froze. Gov. Beverly Perdue’s military advisers estimate 41,000 military members from North Carolina’s four largest installations were away when the 2010 census was taken. As they rotate back from Iraq and Afghanistan and BRAC plays out, the gross military product statewide will reach $32.5 billion by 2013.

Fort Bragg’s boom echoes all around it, but nowhere as loudly as in this city of about 210,000 that once tried to live down its now reviled sobriquets of Fayettenam and Fatalville. They’re still storming Combat Alley, not with longnecks and hard-toed jump boots but disposable income and MasterCards. Condos in Civil War-vintage buildings now overlook a Parisian-flavored cobblestone street. There are shops and nearly a dozen outdoor cafes such as Pierro’s Italian Bistro. Cappuccino and decaf flow at Rude Awakening. In Cupcake Gallery, behind floral-pink curtains in a pastel-green storefront, owner Ana Holcombe stirs a frothy white mix. “Making frosting,” she explains. “Children, families, the elderly — we get them from zero to 99.”

The city bought out Rick’s in the ’90s, and in its place are a police station and the Airborne & Special Operations Museum, an international attraction. A different kind of cognoscenti gushes over The Chocolate Lady. They say her handmade truffles and chocolate-drizzled cherries are the best. Her shop closes at 6 p.m. The twins, if they’re still alive, are on Social Security.

 

Dawn is still an hour away in Spring Lake, a gritty mishmash of rental houses, fast-food restaurants and auto-parts stores named for a polluted, fishless puddle that backed up when they built a railroad fill across a marshy spot off South Mitchley Street. The town of about 13,200 clings to the northeast shoulder of Fort Bragg, its faded Main Street little changed since the Vietnam era. But here, at a primary portal to Fort Bragg, the around-the-clock impact of today’s Army slams home. Even at 0400 hours.

Headlights glare as soldiers stream through town on North Bragg Boulevard and Lillington Highway — N.C. 87 and N.C. 210 — into the base to begin the day. They and others like them swell Fort Bragg’s numbers to nearly 50,000 military men and women, plus 11,000 civilian employees, 5,400 contractors and 74,400 members of military families. By 2015, mainly by BRAC growth, the daily count will increase to more than 150,000. Directly and indirectly, the base pumped $26 million a day through the regional economy in 2010. In 2009, when BRAC’s impact began in earnest, U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis figures show per capita income in the Fayetteville metro area jumped 4.8% to $40,917, second only to Marine-heavy Jacksonville’s $44,664. Both eclipse such vaunted centers of civilian commerce as Charlotte and Raleigh.

“Traditionally, we had the troops, but we never had the rank structure we needed here,” says Bo Gregory, director of economic development at Fayetteville-Cumberland County Chamber of Commerce. “Now, with Forces Command, we’ll be second to the Pentagon in generals, but even the Pentagon doesn’t have our elite airborne-infantry units, Special Operations command or the Delta Force units here.” The last is the secret counterterrorism unit. Officially, it doesn’t exist.

“The military part is just the tip of the iceberg,” adds Kristie Meave, a chamber senior vice president. “You have direct and induced benefits and the retail aspects because so many more people are moving here. Forces Command isn’t just bringing military people, it’s bringing higher-ranking GS — government service — positions, GS 13s and 14s that are making $70,000 and $80,000 a year.” When Panera Bread Co. opened in November on Skibo Road near Fort Bragg, it was “the biggest first day, biggest first week, biggest first month” in the history of the company’s 1,500 restaurants nationwide, franchise owner Joe Bastian says.

All this can be traced to the post-Vietnam change of heart about the military — particularly the public’s willingness to elect politicians who support better pay and conditions. As Hinnant, the Forces Command public affairs officer, wheels his pickup through heavily guarded checkpoints and onto the sprawling base, he points out new family-housing projects and barracks that rival Fayetteville’s middle-class civilian homes and apartments. On-base families will soon get two new elementary schools at a cost of $55 million, and 4,000-square-foot brick houses are rising near Forces Command headquarters on Generals’ Row.

At the 82nd Airborne Division — where Vietnam-era troops slept in double-deck bunks in open bays in wooden barracks — soldiers live two per unit, with private bedrooms and shared kitchens, in high-rises with wrought-iron balconies. A new division headquarters is going up at a cost of $53 million. At command headquarters, an average of 450 workers a day — with 70% of the subcontractors from North Carolina — have lugged concrete and steel since ground was broken in 2008. There’s more than construction spending in play: Military-related civilian pay in the 11 counties surrounding the base will exceed $408 million a year by 2013.

In the mid-’60s, when the Vietnam War cranked up and grim-faced chaplains began visiting Army wives waiting in tiny, $75-a-month duplexes rented from civilian landlords in Spring Lake, starting pay for an enlisted man was $78 a month, plus $55 for housing if he lived off base. If he volunteered to become a paratrooper, he got $55 hazardous-duty pay. In combat, $65 more. A career soldier who made staff sergeant in 10 years — a typical progression — earned $330 a month in base pay. A second lieutenant, the lowest officer rank, started at $294.60 a month, with $110 for housing if married and living off post.

“I got here in 1972, just as the Vietnam War was cranking down, and the Army was all screwed up and in terrible shape,” says Roy Parker, 81, who became editor of The Fayetteville Times in 1973. “By the end of the Vietnam War, we got rid of the conscript Army, and military income tripled in three or four years. By 1975, every soldier out there had enough money to buy a car. They were good customers, and then when housing and other allowances got better, they started living in town and buying houses. Since then, we’ve just barreled right along.”

Today’s pay and benefits rival those of civilians. A recruit starts at nearly $18,000 a year, with food, housing and health care provided. At 10 years, a staff sergeant earns more than $49,000 in base pay. Married with a family, he — or, increasingly, she — can get $1,260 a month to buy or rent a house, $325 for food and, common at Fort Bragg, $150-a-month “jump” pay. With health-care and other allowances, the total can swell to more than $70,000 a year for a midcareer enlisted soldier. Today’s typical officer — say, a lieutenant colonel with 20 years in — earns about $90,000 a year, with housing and other pay pushing the total to well over $100,000.

The change in pay and the change in the relationship between the military and civilians here are inseparable. Twenty-two miles west of Fayetteville in Raeford, Don Porter is a case study of that change. As director of the Raeford-Hoke Economic Development Commission, he’s hoping spillover from BRAC growth at Bragg will reverse the fortunes of one of the state’s poorest counties. North Carolina’s economic developer of the year in 2010, he is on his second career. For much of his first — 30 years in the Army before retiring as a colonel — he was stationed at Fort Bragg, starting in 1969. A black in Army green, he found equality in the service. “We had the same mission, which was to keep each other alive, I don’t care what color you were.” Not so in town, in the twilight of an era when some commercial establishments still displayed “No Dogs or GIs” signs. “Some went a little further,” Porter recalls, “and the word started with N.”

The enmity wasn’t only on the civilian side. “In the ’60s and ’70s,” Parker says, “we had mostly a generation of career noncoms who came back with that Vietnam chip on their shoulders, or they came back as killer warriors who didn’t want to have anything to do with civilians. Army demographics have changed tremendously in the last 20 years.”

Joe Harris is of a later generation of soldier. A sergeant major, the highest enlisted rank, the lanky 30-year intelligence specialist and jumpmaster — a senior paratrooper who stands in a plane’s open door directing jumps — has done four tours in Iraq. Operating temporarily out of a former elementary school on base, he is the ranking noncom in the advance party that’s overseeing Forces Command’s move. “I’m 53, so I remember Walter Cronkite’s broadcasts when I was growing up. Vietnam was a black mark on vets. They were called baby killers.” Married, with a daughter in private school, he expects to retire in two years, returning to civilian life where soldiers are seen differently now. “Even before 9/11, there were little sparks here and there. I remember going in a Food Lion one evening to pick up some little staple item before I went home. An older lady opened the door for me and said, ‘Thank you.’”

 

Just off All American Expressway along Raeford Road in west Fayetteville, car dealerships, supermarkets and other stores gird for weekend sales wars. In uniform, armed with Thin Mints, Girl Scouts hawk cookies along a sidewalk at Tallywood Shopping Center. Behind it, among real-estate companies and a Merrill Lynch Wealth Management office, is the civilian command center coordinating the campaign to win military dollars.

Greg Taylor, a former county commissioner from neighboring Bladen County, is executive director of BRAC Regional Task Force, representing 11 counties and 53 municipalities. Forces Command has an annual budget of $30 billion, including contracts expected to lure hundreds of companies, among them defense giants such as Arlington, Va.-based Lockheed Martin Corp., whose $10 million annual bill for lobbying exceeds the budgets of some task force members. Projections are that 19,000 civilian jobs will be created in the region. Three or four office and industrial parks, one with 1.5 million square feet of space, are already under way.

“One of our success indicators will be in creating networking opportunities for business and industry,” Taylor says. “Our board, using money from the counties, has already set up the N.C. Military Business Association, which is going well — it has over 275 members already.” Schools and colleges — among them, Fayetteville State University, Methodist University and Fayetteville Technical Community College — are scrambling to offer courses in graphics, animation and virtual reality for an Army that increasingly fights battles with remote-controlled drones and other high-tech weapons. Five years ago, Fayetteville opened its Defense and Security Technology Accelerator, an incubator for small defense businesses such as those that already claim $100 million a year in military contracts.

But Taylor and others also must rein in some wildly optimistic expectations. In Spring Lake, local leaders were disappointed when a study they commissioned concluded that the town will not become another Crystal City, the Arlington, Va., neighbor to the Pentagon that is home to hundreds of defense-related businesses and whose subway-fed weekday workforce swells to 60,000. Most residential growth will be farther out in Harnett and other counties, the consultants concluded, recommending that Spring Lake content itself with commuter businesses such as restaurants and big-box retailers.

That might not be a bad idea. Much of the money from Fort Bragg, which has an annual military and civilian payroll of about $3 billion, stays on base, spent in military commissaries and post exchanges. Thousands of military families live in government-owned housing. As Hinnant drives through new construction, he points out a row of houses — being built at a cost of about $11 million for incoming two-, three- and four-star generals — that won’t generate local property taxes.

Cumberland County School Superintendent Frank Till says about a third of his system’s 52,000 students are connected to the military. BRAC will add 2,000 to 3,000 more, so about $70 million will be needed for new schools. Children who live on base attend schools there through the eighth grade, then go to local high schools. Military families often pay little more than sales taxes. Regionwide, schools are bracing for 9,000 additional students by 2015. Harnett County Superintendent Phil Ferrell says the system has no way to pay for the new high school, which would cost about $50 million, and three lower-level schools it needs. BRAC’s budget doesn’t include substantial support for the strains the buildup will cause.

Some local officials wonder whether it’s a gift horse or a Trojan horse they’re getting. “We’re delighted to see it,” says Porter, the Hoke County economic developer. “Our fair property-tax rate and the amount of house you can buy here for your dollar will help us tremendously. But it’s a two-edged sword. In a low-wealth county like ours, residential growth, at the end of the day, doesn’t pay the bills.” Fayetteville Mayor Chavonne says the growing pains will be worth it. “For every community that’s growing because of BRAC, there’s one that’s losing that $1 billion-a-year impact. I’d rather be in the community gaining it.”

This fall, he is promoting a 10-day event around Veterans Day he calls Heroes Homecoming to honor Vietnam veterans, who he believes never received the welcome home they deserved. About 200,000 soldiers underwent basic training at Fort Bragg during the war. Some will recognize glimpses of the Fayetteville they knew. Along Bragg Boulevard, there are still scattered pawnshops and strip clubs, and worn women in zipper-straining jeans occasionally pace sidewalks. But most of the event’s activities will center on $14 million North Carolina Veterans Park, which will open July 4 adjoining the Airborne and Special Operations Museum. The sign says Hay Street, but some will remember it as Combat Alley.

 

Fort Bragg’s military buildup

In March, in a small ceremony heavy on huffing military bravado, Pope Air Force Base, where tens of thousands of paratroopers have boarded airplanes, was handed back to the Army. The move is part of a nationwide base realignment and closing to save money. “A return to the beginning,” Rodney Anderson, the two-star general who is second in command at Fort Bragg and the XVIII Airborne Corps, called it.

Close, but not quite. Camp Bragg — named for Confederate general and North Carolina native Braxton Bragg — was established in 1918, a year before aviator Harley Pope was killed in a crash nearby, which lent his name to the Army’s first airfield. Joined at the hip with Fort Bragg, which became a permanent base in 1922, it was separated from the Army in 1947 when the Air Force became its own service.

Generations of GIs have grumbled that military bases are set in places too hot, too cold, too forsaken, too remote — too worthless — for anything else. Exaggeration maybe, but these tarred-out pine barrens on the edge of the Sandhills did offer little else. “In the early days, the Army was about all we had down here,” Fayetteville historian Roy Parker says. The government spent $6 million to create a base that now sprawls over 250 square miles in four counties and is, by population, the largest Army installation in the world.

But it was a backwater base in the 1930s. “The few thousand troops there were considered a cash cow and were treated that way,” Parker says. Then World War II, when all five of the Army’s airborne divisions trained there, ramped up its military population to 159,000 at its height. After a postwar drawdown, Vietnam boosted the base again. As a center for airborne and Special Forces training, Fort Bragg increasingly found itself in the international spotlight, as a staging ground for operations in the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots.

The base has known its share of catastrophes, most dramatically in 1994, when an Air Force fighter jet crashed into 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers waiting at Pope to board a C-141, killing 24. But through five generations, most of its tragedies have been the less spectacular kind — the thousands who have gone to war from there but not returned.