January 29, 2009 News » Cover Story

Fire down below 

Construction may be nearly frozen in Colorado Springs, but there's plenty of action to the south

As garrison commander, Army Col. Eugene Smith is sometimes described as Fort Carson's mayor. But Smith resists that description. He's more of a hands-on administrator, he suggests, making sure roads get plowed and construction projects stay on schedule.

"I say I'm more like the city manager for the city of Fort Carson," Smith says. "Anything that Penny [Culbreth-Graft] would do for Colorado Springs, I pretty much do for Fort Carson."

Smith keeps tabs on services and infrastructure from a large, wood-paneled office on the second floor of the post's headquarters building. With a "population" of around 45,000 soldiers, spouses and children, he says, Fort Carson would rank as the 15th-largest city in the state of Colorado.

Smith chuckles softly when asked about the main complaint he hears from constituents.

"Obviously, roads is a biggie," he says.

That actually might not be obvious to many Colorado Springs residents who see the 137,000-acre military post only from outside barbed-wire fences and heavily guarded gates. But the post is coping with traffic bottlenecks and construction closures, by-products of a massive building boom.

Happy nightmare

Before driving one morning to Evans Army Community Hospital on post, Fort Carson media relations chief Karen Connelly warns that parking will be a nightmare. She's right with one lot torn up for an addition, the only available parking is on a roadside, hundreds of yards away.

The construction numbers at Fort Carson are staggering, adding up to $2.25 billion for a 10-year period ending in 2015. Projects for 2009 include a new fitness center, buildings for a special-forces battalion, and barracks, motor pools and other facilities for a new infantry brigade. The '09 price tag: $580 million.

According to the Army Corps of Engineers, about 80 percent of the work is subcontracted to local construction companies, such as Bryan Construction and Tepa. Brian Binn, president of the military affairs division of the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, says Fort Carson construction is helping keep these and other companies busy in otherwise brutal economic times.

"These construction companies are still hiring a lot of local people," he says.

All that work may be helping to prop up the Colorado Springs economy, but it creates some unusual challenges for Smith and those who work under him.

"Because we are a growth site," Smith says, the hardest thing "is trying to make sure that our construction projects have stayed synchronized with our unit deployments."

The post will swell in coming months. One brigade already stationed at Fort Carson is now trickling back from Iraq. And this spring, an additional brigade and the command staff from the 4th Infantry Division will relocate from Fort Hood, Texas. The growth should let up only when another brigade leaves for Afghanistan this summer.

Order in the chaos

Despite all the activity, the post does project a bit of calm. There's no sign of the entrepreneurial disorder that would accompany such rapid growth in the civilian world.

With low brick buildings and neat rows of matching houses, the post almost feels like a Stepfordian cousin to the city that sprawls to the north. There are familiar amenities like gas stations and fast-food restaurants, but also coffee houses with names like "GI Jolt" and child-care centers bearing the stamp of the Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation.

One major construction project completed last year is the headquarters for the 4th ID. Since the headquarters division is still deployed in Iraq, the building has the expectant feel of a partially furnished house. An imposing building, its front doors open into a lobby outfitted with comfy chairs and as-yet-unstaffed reception desk.

Lt. Col. Phil Deppert occupies a spartan office behind a warren of cubicles where a stray hard hat hints at recent assembly work. A description of his function at the post is something of a mouthful: "I'm deputy rear detachment commander for the 4th ID here on Fort Carson," he explains.

That boils down to supervising 4th ID soldiers already at Fort Carson and helping coordinate the move.

When the move is complete, Fort Carson will hold the 4th ID in its entirety, with its four combat brigades. Construction work to house a fifth brigade in the 4th ID is just getting under way this year.

Though the Army routinely moves units and commands to different posts, Deppert seems impressed by the scale of what's happening now.

"This is a pretty unique thing for the Army to do," he says.


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