National budget cuts have spurred speculation that the much-anticipated arrival of the 5th Brigade for Fort Stewart may not materialize. The brigade was reportedly expected to bring in 3,500 soldiers, which would equate a projected population surge of 10,000 people when you factor in the soldiers’ families.
In an attempt to tighten the budget, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced last week that his proposal to President Barack Obama would include capping the number of new brigade combat teams at 45, instead of 48.
But nothing is certain yet, explained Frank Norton of Hurt, Norton & Associates, Inc., a Washington D.C.-based lobbying firm.
"We are still in a positive condition to get the brigade," Norton said at a meeting of developers and local officials in Hinesville last week. "The fiscal 2010 budget hasn’t been cleared yet."
If the brigade does not come, this could put a damper on the anticipated boost Bryan County officials have been expecting.
Bryan officials have previously spoken of the surge the brigade’s arrival could give to the local housing market.
It has been reported that Fort Stewart can only house a fraction of the incoming soldiers, forcing them to purchase or rent homes in the area."I’ve heard about it (potential brigade may not come), but we haven’t been told one way or the other," Richmond Hill city manager Mike Melton said. "Obviously, if it came, it would be a great boost to our economy. We’re not as dependent on the military installation as much as say Hinesville is, so it won’t be devastating, but it certainly would be better for this area as a whole if the brigade arrived."
As for local realtors and home builders, the notion that the brigade may not come is more serious.
Local home builder Wilson Pickett said a lot is at stake here. He said the new brigade is the one glimmer of hope for the "hobbling" local housing market right now.
He explained how lenders are hesitant to give out home loans right now – with soldiers, capable of attaining VA loans, being the exception.
"The combination of the population increase with the fact that they’re soldiers could turn the tide of many in the industry who are just scratching by during these tough times," Pickett said.
But some building hasn't slowed down.
Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas, a former Army project manager on post, calculated about $9 million worth of construction is already going on at Fort Stewart.
"For them to cut off almost a billion dollars doesn’t make any kind of sense to me," he said.
"Sometimes common sense does not prevail in government," said state Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway. "Our government — and we love it to death — is not always practical in their decisions."
Flooding congressional mailboxes and phone lines seemed to be the agreed approach to plea Liberty County's case.
"I’ll be willing to bet my paycheck…that Fort Bliss, Fort Carson are writing letters right now," Thomas said. "We got to get out and compete with those folks."
Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas, County Commissioner John McIver, State Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, and developer Clay Sykes recently made a trip to Washington, D.C. to state their case for receiving the new troops to the assistant secretary of the Army for installation and environment and the Army G3 operations.
"They recognized the importance of Fort Stewart," Thomas said.
The group also visited with congressional staffers, who Thomas said already are writing letters to the Department of Defense and President Barack Obama on behalf of Hinesville and Fort Stewart.
"Both senators in the staff were very supportive," Thomas said.
Although he said the convoy did get a good amount of support, the group didn’t get a firm answer regarding the brigade’s location.
"They couldn’t tell us exactly when [they’re making a decision], but said it’ll be around the middle part of May," Thomas said.
They did get good news, however, that gave the group some hope.
"One good sign is that the contracts with the Army Corp of Engineers are still coming. They haven’t stopped any of them. In fact, they just sent some more," Thomas said.
Because the Army Corp of Engineers is in charge of all construction projects, Thomas said he was very happy to see the major projects on Fort Stewart are still on track.
Another positive sign, he said, is that Hinesville’s representatives were the first of all the cities in contention for losing a brigade to lobby in Washington.
"I felt we needed to go quickly," he said.
Thomas said Monday, while addressing Hinesville's Military Affairs Committee, that the visit to Washington led to implications that Fort Stewart could still see the arrival of a large number of soldiers from what would have been a 5th BCT.
"Basically, the secretary of defense made these decisions … and then there was a large hullabaloo because the Army generals needed those brigades," he said. "So, no matter, what, we’re going to get something."
Thomas said he is expecting an official decision to be made sometime in early May."It just depends on the president. The president has got to make that decision."
Reporters Alena Parker, Frenchi Jones and Lauren Hunsberger from Hinesville's Coastal Courier contributed to this story.