Our loss, their gain: 10 years later, Fort McClellan's move continues to bless Missouri
by Dan Whisenhunt
Assistant Metro Editor
Sep 27, 2009 | 7767 views |  6 comments | 42 42 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Some of the operations moved from Fort McClellan to Fort Leonard Wood are housed in this building. Photo: Courtesy of the U.S. Army
Some of the operations moved from Fort McClellan to Fort Leonard Wood are housed in this building. Photo: Courtesy of the U.S. Army
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John May, left, is the health physics manager for the Chemical, Biological and Radiological Nuclear School, the new name given to the Chemical School. Linda Pressley, right, is chief of the Training Management Division in the MP School. Both are McClellan transplants. Photo: Dan Whisenhunt/The Anniston Star
John May, left, is the health physics manager for the Chemical, Biological and Radiological Nuclear School, the new name given to the Chemical School. Linda Pressley, right, is chief of the Training Management Division in the MP School. Both are McClellan transplants. Photo: Dan Whisenhunt/The Anniston Star
slideshow
A Civil War-era stagecoach stop in Waynesville, Mo. Photo: Dan Whisenhunt/The Anniston Star
A Civil War-era stagecoach stop in Waynesville, Mo. Photo: Dan Whisenhunt/The Anniston Star
slideshow
Part 1: Catching up with an old friend

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — The soldiers and civilians from Fort McClellan in Anniston traded Appalachians for Ozarks. They stopped hearing "y'all" and started hearing "you'ns."

They no longer could order sweet tea.

The cities around Fort Leonard Wood are glad they came. St. Robert sprouted retail and restaurants; the hallways of the Waynesville Schools system filled with students.

Ten years later Fort McClellan's closing continues to bless Pulaski County. Contractors build houses. The tables at restaurants are full, and tips can be generous.

Like a steady drumbeat, families from around the country pack local hotels when they come here to watch their sons and daughters graduate from basic training. And when they come, they spend money.

Isn't this supposed to be a recession? Not so much in Pulaski County.

"We're up 2 percent (in revenues) here," presiding Pulaski County Commissioner Bill Ransdall said. Other counties are reporting revenue losses of 15 percent, he said.

To a man and woman, virtually every person living here is connected with the fort either by employment, retirement, assignment or marriage.

Like any influx of jobs into a community, good fortune also came with good problems. And while many members of the military and politicians have empathy for the toll the move took on Anniston, they are grateful for the growth spurt.

"It's been great," Ransdall said. "Every business person realized our gain was going to cause somebody else a loss. It's definitely a two-way street and my deepest sympathy for that."

Fort lost in the woods

Fort Leonard Wood sits on 63,000 acres just south of the cities Waynesville and St. Robert. If you were to close your eyes at McClellan and wake up here, you might not know the difference at first. Then you'd see the troops marching through the early morning fog.

On any given day, there might be 35,000 people on post.

"That's conservative," post spokesman Mike Alley said.

The post has been mocked as "Fort Lost in the Woods" because of its remoteness. It's surrounded on three sides by the Mark Twain National forest. Mark Premont, director of the plans, analysis and integration office at Fort Leonard Wood, was here during the McClellan move to Leonard Wood. But he can also remember decades before when the community, teeming with military personnel, couldn't sell itself to businesses.

In 1981, the local community leaders struggled to lure a McDonald's, he said. But it could sustain commercial business. In the early days of Wal-Mart, the store location near the fort was the most profitable in the entire chain, Premont said.

Now St. Robert has a Wal-Mart Supercenter and a handful of nicer restaurants and hotels. The new investment from businesses followed the move of Fort McClellan's chemical and military police schools to the area, Premont and others say. Before the Army moved Anniston's jobs to Fort Leonard Wood, it moved the engineering school here from Virginia in 1989.

"It's not because the jobs came," Premont said. "It's because of the structure. By having three schools here, businesses felt it was safer to be here.

"That's a perception," he added. "We're no safer than any other installation in the world."

A former fort

The numbers don't lie. Since 1990, St. Robert has doubled its population, which now stands at 3,456 people. Waynesville made more modest gains. In 2008, it had 3,960 people; it was 3,207 people in 1990. Rolla, a 30-minute drive east, grew from 14,090 people in 1990 to 18,438 in 2008.

In 1990, Calhoun County's population was 116,034 people. In 2008 it is 113,419 people. Anniston's population shrank from 26,623 in 1990 to 23,662 in 2008.

Calhoun County Commissioner Eli Henderson said he was surprised by the dramatic changes after Fort McClellan closed.

"I didn't think initially that it would be that severe," he said. "I think through the years, it's had a more severe impact than what we thought it was going to be. I thought something would happen at Fort McClellan to replace all the jobs we've lost by now."

What's happened is the legal wrangling over who ultimately should control McClellan has reset the redevelopment effort. Much of McClellan's early development was overseen by the Joint Powers Authority, a board that was dissolved by a court order in 2008. While the board had some early development success, questions over its legal status continued to dog its actions. The new McClellan Development Authority is still an advisory board to the Calhoun County Commission. An appeal is pending before the state Supreme Court on the judge's ruling that dissolved the JPA.

"I think the initial reaction from people was a state of panic and concern, but, as time has gone along, there's over 2,000 jobs out there now," Calhoun County Administrator Ken Joiner said. "Those are permanent jobs. I think things have gone pretty well, and, if we can ever get this situation straightened out with the lawsuit, I think we're going to see some dramatic changes."

Tense days

Randsall and the other community leaders in Missouri were afraid when the Base Realignment and Closure Commission was deciding whether to close McClellan or Fort Leonard Wood. Keith Wayne Pritchard, chairman of Security Bank of Pulaski County, remembers well the feeling of vulnerability. The bank is in historic downtown Waynesville, a city that has seen population growth but not as much commercial development as St. Robert. The town features a square of brick buildings with a Civil War-era stagecoach stop.

Pritchard served as chair of the Committee of 50, a support group for Fort Leonard Wood, from 1990 to 1995, the "hot years" for BRAC.

He said there was one proposal to close Fort Leonard Wood and move its assets to Anniston.

"Any military installation in the United States during those years … could not feel entirely safe unless you were one of the major mega-bases," Pritchard said. "I think the reality is any base was vulnerable to the political process of BRAC."

Calhoun and Pulaski counties, communities states apart, became rivals. The issue of whether to close one post or the other was hotly debated, Pritchard said.

He remembers the date BRAC came down in favor of keeping Fort Leonard Wood: June 22, 1995.

"We were there and the Anniston folks were there," he said. "It was a very trying day and … they spent an hour or longer on the McClellan-Fort Leonard Wood issue."

Pritchard thinks the Fort Leonard Wood community won out because the move of the engineering school to the post had been so well-received. The community also learned important lessons from that experience. Elected officials, businessmen and the chamber of commerce knew their biggest economic engine was about to get bigger. And they were determined to be ready.

Transplants

Linda Pressley and John May were among the McClellan transfers. Premont, the director of the plans, analysis and integration office at Fort Leonard Wood, estimated 73 percent of the people at the Anniston base actually relocated.

Pressley is chief of the Training Management Division in the MP School. May is the health physics manager for the Chemical, Biological and Radiological Nuclear School, the new name given to the Chemical School.

May said the hardest part of the move was maintaining two offices for the first year.

Pressley said the traffic was better, but the area around Fort Leonard Wood offered limited shopping.

"The area had not been developed," she said.

When they arrived, Wal-Mart closed at 9 p.m. Now it's a 24-hour Super Center. Roadways are also improving.

"We pretty much doubled the population," May said.

Prior to the move, Leonard Wood's population was about 25,700 people. After the McClellan moved, it increased to 34,000.

Ransdall, the presiding Pulaski County commissioner, said housing was hard to come by when the engineering school moved in. Rolla had more big housing units.

"Some of those engineering people moved to Rolla," Ransdall said. "Some have retired and still live there."

Cecilia Murray, executive director of the Waynesville-St. Robert Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber worked throughout the BRAC process and reached out to the families at McClellan.

"We went down there and gave briefings and tried to help the families with transition to understand the community and what we offered," she said. "But we did have to get ready for them on the housing side."

U.S. Land and Home-Fort Wood Realty owner Chet Adkins thinks the builders at the time over-promised and under-delivered by building quickly. Ninety-five percent of his business, based near Security Bank, is connected to the fort.

"I really believe the builders built too fast to accommodate people coming from McClellan," Adkins said, adding later, "They made promises they didn't keep."

In Waynesville, the building continues. Bruce Harrill was the assistant administrator in St. Robert before becoming city administrator in Waynesville. In 2008, the city issued a record number of 71 single-family building permits. St. Robert has seen more commercial growth, but Waynesville Mayor Cliff Hammock said the two cities are partners.

Harrill said the city will likely see more commercial business now that the city has access to a recently opened west gate to the post. But the county's dependence on the base is causing local officials to think about a future where it's still a key player in the local economy but not the only player. While the fort is secure for now, they know what happened to Anniston can easily happen to them.

Deep impression

At Miller's Grill men with close-cropped hair drink and smoke at the bar. The management at the two-year-old restaurant can always tell when the soldiers get paid. Likewise, the businesses feel the sting when a large number of troops deploy. When troops leave, their families often go back home to be with their extended families.

"Last year we had three units deploy," Ransdall said. "I don't think that's ever happened before. It hurt economically."

Murray said many families left during the deployment. Chamber members called wanting an explanation, "for them to justify the decrease in sales numbers."

The base has also changed the county politically, Ransdall said. Ransdall, a Democrat, said more military families means more conservative Republican voters.

"When I was a youngster, there weren't any Republicans at all serving in office," he said. "It went from 0 percent 40 years ago to 50 percent (Republican) now."

The influx of McClellan personnel has put a strain on local law enforcement. Pulaski County Sheriff J.B. King said the McClellan move "stretched the hell out of us."

"We have not had a manpower increase since 2001," he said. The bulk of his office's work related to the post is civil cases, such as divorces, and small crimes, such as soldiers writing bad checks.

"For the community, yes, it's been very positive," King said. "For law enforcement, it's been more of a drain because it's increased our workload greatly."

Diversification

At Pritchard's bank office he gets many applications from wives of soldiers who want to work for him. They are often overqualified, he said.

The level of jobs for retired military personnel has grown, providing more opportunity than in the past, he said.

"We would love to see a more well-rounded community that would have another smokestack behind Fort Leonard Wood," Pritchard said, adding later, "We do have our eggs in the Army basket."

Adkins said without the base, Pulaski County would "dry up and fly away."

Murray said the business community knows this, too.

"We just hired an economic developer with the Pulaski County Growth Alliance," she said. "He's coming on and going to aggressively look at the findings from the diversification study."

They're looking ahead. But they're doing it with the confidence that having a post like Fort Leonard Wood provides.

When a bad ice storm hit in January 2007, Ransdall said the garrison commander came and offered generators. Sheriff King has access to a fleet of reserve deputies affiliated with the base. If a major crime occurs, he has experts available that other law-enforcement agencies of a similar size might not have.

The Committee of 50 regularly recognizes the post by celebrating its milestones, honoring the soldiers and personnel with dinners and gifts. Murray said the chamber of commerce does a quality of life survey every year, making sure the families are happy.

Ransdall said the residents realize the importance of the base and its role in the economy.

"Repeatedly you will hear that we are the best neighbor of any military installation," he said.

You'll also repeatedly hear from residents and military officials that while they're sorry Anniston lost Fort McClellan, it was in the best interest of the Army. Maj. Gen. Gregg Martin, commanding general of the U.S. Army Maneuver Support Center and Fort Leonard Wood, said Anniston residents should know their sacrifice made the Army better.

"Our leaders did what's in the best interest of national security," he said. "Unfortunately, when you make tough decisions, there will be people who suffer."

Coming Monday: Losing the fort meant losing players for some area high school teams.

10 years later

Editor's note: Wednesday marks the 10-year anniversary of Fort McClellan closing in Anniston and moving to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. In a four-part series, The Star looks at where we are and where we're headed a decade after losing what was once the economic engine of northeast Alabama.

Part 2: Fort's closure still felt by teams a decade later
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