Colorado Springs officials and businesspeople are ready to pop the champagne corks over the arrival of a new Combat Aviation Brigade at Fort Carson early next year.
They love that the brigade will bring 2,700 soldiers and their families, and require some $700 million in construction at the post that will temporarily employ thousands of workers.
And there's really nothing that can stop the brigade from coming, between late 2012 and 2013, since the Army's Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement concluded a year ago that Carson was the best site for the CAB. That all but guaranteed that helicopters will fly over Colorado Springs, national forest land to the west, and the 238,000-acre Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site to the southeast.
But how, where and when the brigade trains is far from certain, because those parameters will be shaped by an Environmental Assessment (EA) that's still pending and could be prolonged into a more complicated Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) if some southeastern Colorado residents, including two panels of county commissioners, get their way.
"How much this unit can train, where they can train — that is all up in the air," says Cathy Kropp, environmental public affairs specialist with Installation Management Command/Army Environmental Command in Houston. "The fact they're coming, is not."
A forecast by Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments shows Carson's annual economic impact between 2011 and 2015 will grow by $900 million, from $1.9 billion to $2.8 billion, because of the new brigade.
The report, which estimates that more than 90 percent of soldier retail trade happens off post, predicts that spending by the brigade's soldiers, along with the construction work, translates to 7,500 new area jobs.
PPACG spokesman Jason Wilkinson acknowledges that major contractors could come from out of state. But Brian Binn, president of military affairs for the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber and EDC, notes in an e-mail, "The Corps of Engineers estimates that about 80 percent of the sub-work may go to local contractors."
Binn says every military position creates 1.3 to 1.7 additional jobs locally, and that even with the new unit, only about 23 percent of Carson's soldiers will live on post, where Balfour Beatty of the United Kingdom owns most of the housing. The rest will rent or buy homes or apartments in the region.
They'll also pay taxes, some of which will be needed to offset government spending to accommodate Carson's growth. For example, the state, which received about $10 million in sales taxes related to Carson in the 2009-10 fiscal year, is spending $25 million to upgrade State Highway 115 from South Academy Boulevard to Rock Creek Road, largely because of the post's traffic and needs.
Binn stresses that getting the brigade assures a viable future for Carson's 4th Infantry Division, currently the Army's only division without a CAB.
Given that the CAB is a guarantee, you might wonder, "Why an Environmental Assessment?"
"This EA is to come up with alternatives to implement this [CAB]," Kropp says. "What construction will we do? Where? What will cause the least impacts? How are we going to accommodate this unit for housing, for training on this installation? What are the impacts associated with that?"
Needing more time to address the 285 comments submitted for the EA, the Army has delayed issuing a finding, which would follow one of two paths. If a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) is issued, the Army will still conduct a 30-day comment period, though it's not needed, she says; the process will end there. If impacts need further study, the Army will issue a notice of intent to begin an Environmental Impact Statement, which requires two, 30-day comment periods.
An EIS is preferred by county commissioners from Prowers and Otero counties, who note in letters to Carson's Garrison Commander Col. Robert McLaughlin that the study has been "more speculative than defined."
Not 1 More Acre!, a group based in Trinidad that opposes greater use of historic Piñon Canyon, argues in a statement from its attorney, Stephen Harris of Colorado Springs, that until the environmental process is finished, the Army can't legally commit resources or funds to the CAB at Carson.
(Carson spokeswoman Dee McNutt says the post will get rebuilt, not new, helicopters — clearly an allocation decision — and confirms that some facilities already are built at Carson.)
Harris also states that the Army's environmental work relies on flawed analysis contained in a 2007 EIS that was rejected by a judge in 2009.
"All evidence demonstrates that military training at the PCMS has caused, and will continue to cause, irreparable and irreversible damage to the natural and cultural resources at the PCMS," Harris writes.
Not 1 More Acre!'s 123-page comment letter also alleges the Army plans to use unmanned ground vehicles and aerial systems (drones) at PCMS, the impact of which hasn't been analyzed in the EA.
Kropp says those systems weren't analyzed, because they simply won't be used.
"This action doesn't include unmanned aerial or ground vehicles even though every other CAB has that," she says.
"If it's decided later they will have a [drone] company, they will have to do an EA or EIS to determine what the impacts are of that action, because it's determined to be a major action and it's not part of this action."