Because of a large military population that spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually, Colorado Springs has enjoyed relative economic stability despite the recession.
The Army is the state’s second largest employer, with a current active-duty population of more than 20,000 soldiers. And the largest single beneficiary continues to be El Paso County – home to more than 90 percent of Colorado’s active duty soldiers.
The economic impact of the military – especially a growing Fort Carson – can be felt throughout Colorado Springs.
Two years ago, the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments projected $1.3 billion in construction spending between 2007 and 2013 at the Mountain Post. And millions of dollars of additional capital and infrastructure improvements have been approved for construction since.
The PPACG Fort Carson Regional Growth Plan, published during January 2008, predicted $2.6 billion in “induced output” – secondary community wages, goods and services resulting from on-post construction; and $887.5 million in direct wage, based on Bureau of Economic Analysis multipliers.
But those numbers are likely to change. More than $600 million in additional construction on post has been approved since then. A revised growth plan is scheduled to be completed by the end of June.
Even as the Pikes Peak region basks in infrastructure building activity through 2012 and awaits the arrival of 3,500 long-promised troops from Fort Hood this summer, not all news related to the Mountain Post is good.
On April 7, Defense Secretary Robert Gates recommended reducing the number of Army brigade combat teams from 48 to 45. That would mean the newly created 5th Brigade Combat Team, planned since 2007, would not be assigned to Fort Carson.
“The Army has trouble filling some of the units they deploy,” he said. “Let’s stop at 45 and, at a later date, re-look force structure.”
His goal was to make $2 billion available for intelligence and electronic surveillance in Afghanistan.
Despite the secretary’s recommendation, Lt. Col. Ron Bolton, a spokesman for the Garrison Commander’s office on Carson, said the Army Corps of Engineers has solicited bids for two brigade headquarters projects, one to begin in 2009 and another in 2010.
More than $100 million has already been contracted for the projects, which are budgeted to cost $390 million.
“The installation needed new space for the incoming 4th Brigade anyway – and we’re tight on space for two other existing units – the 2nd and 3rd Combat Brigades – so bids on the first complex were solicited in 2007,” Bolton said. “If Congress doesn’t approve the new Grow the Army brigade, we’ll probably just wait on the second building.”
Fred Crowley, senior economist at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, said that there has been some discussion that the secretary’s recommendation could mean that instead of adding a new brigade, the Army will simply fill vacancies in existing divisions.
“In that case, we’d see additional troops anyway,” he said.
And new troops, however assigned, mean an increased need for housing.
“For 2009, the Army has budgeted about $500 million just for new housing units on post,” Bolton said. “If we did get another 3,400 soldiers and their families, we’d need to build another another 950 units – and frankly, we can only accommodate about 250 more without encroaching on training areas.”
Crowley said that dilemma is a net positive for the Pikes Peak region.
“According to a 2001 Rand Institute study, if 70 percent of military families live off the installation, approximately 65 percent of those will buy homes,” he said. “That’s a nice secondary impact of any growth on post.”
Colorado Springs has stepped up lobbying efforts in Congress to counter Gates’ recommendation.
“A final decision regarding which of the three (brigades) will not be activated has not been made,” said Kate Hatten, military impact program manager for PPACG. “That decision will eventually be part of Congressional budget action – and may take several months.”
Brian Binn, president of the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce’s Military Affairs Group, likewise said discussions are not over.
“We believe the three new brigades – ours, Fort Stewart’s and Fort Bliss’ – are all likely to be kept,” he said. “Nothing’s final yet until the overall Department of Defense budget is approved by Congress and the president.”
In the meantime, the Fort Carson Regional Growth Plan will be reworked to address growth scenarios with and without the brigade, Hatten said.
“Keep in mind that housing and economic conditions in the region, as well as additional construction at Fort Carson, have significantly changed since our Phase I report was completed, making it difficult to translate to current times,” she said.