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Get BRAC recruits to visit, and they will transfer here
Conference highlights efforts to attract Army personnel to Valley

By Eric Fleischauer
eric@decaturdaily.com 340-2435

The Tennessee Valley BRAC Townhall presentation should be required viewing for local residents.

The hourlong program, a combination of speakers, video and slides, has been the centerpiece of numerous presentations in the Washington, D.C., area aimed at attracting Army personnel to transfer to the Tennessee Valley in conjunction with the expansion of Redstone Arsenal.

It also was the centerpiece of "BRAC to the Future," a conference in Huntsville sponsored by the Tennessee Valley BRAC Committee on Friday.

"If you don't get a little tingle from this," said Lincoln County, Tenn., Executive Jerry Mansfield, to a Tennessee Valley audience, "we need to call the Madison County coroner."

The conference was a mock-up of the presentations held over the last few months in the D.C. area. In addition to the Townhall presentation, communities within commuting distance of Redstone had their booths on display at Von Braun Center.

Friday's conference included updates on progress in the Base Realignment and Closure process.

BRAC will bring 4,700 government jobs and at least 5,000 defense contractor jobs to North Alabama. Most of those jobs are for high-dollar engineers and logisticians.

The awkward balance maintained by a dozen Tennessee Valley communities is to present a united front, while trying to win over as many new residents to their own geographical area as possible.

Hugh Ball, president of the Greater Limestone County Chamber of Commerce, explained the urgency behind the cooperative effort. In 1991, an earlier BRAC commission directed the transfer of 1,200 jobs to Redstone Arsenal. Infighting ensued as communities fought each other for a share of the high-income residents. Probably because of the adversity, Ball said, the Army reversed the directive in 2003.

Different approach

Learning from that failure, the region approached the 2005 BRAC process differently.

The prize is significant. By the end of this year, 1,032 government jobs will have moved to Redstone. Another 1,756 will move in 2008; 232 in 2009; 1,600 in 2010 and 1,100 in 2011. Most are bringing families with them.

The Army is spending $403.2 million on construction at Redstone to facilitate the expansion, some of it going to Decatur companies. Moving costs alone are $256 million.

"How can you not be fired up?" said Col. John Olshefski, Redstone Arsenal garrison commander. "This is phenomenal."

Historically, fewer than 20 percent of government personnel transfer to a new location with BRACs.

The first major transfer in this BRAC tracked that percentage. Of 187 Space and Missile Command jobs moved to Redstone, only 27 jobholders opted to leave the D.C. area.

Whether government workers opt to transfer is not all that important to Decatur and other Tennessee Valley communities. By Sept. 15, 2011 — the congressionally imposed deadline — the jobs will be filled. The specialization of the jobs suggests that, whether from D.C. or elsewhere, out-of-town applicants will fill most.

For the Army, though, convincing a high percentage of personnel to transfer to Redstone is imperative. They are not worried about the housing market or unemployment rates; they are worried about national security.

Wartime move

"The critical point," said Robert Harrison, an executive at U.S. Army Materiel Command, "is to make sure we support our forces at war. We can't afford to have lapses."

It was a theme repeated by each of the Army brass speaking at the conference. The nation is at war, and at-risk soldiers are depending on a smooth BRAC transition. That makes the Army a firm ally of Tennessee Valley recruitment efforts. The more personnel who agree to transfer to Redstone, the more effectively the nation can support its troops during the transition.

The well-rehearsed presentation had a Huntsville focus, but speakers — in person and on video — avoided mentioning Huntsville when the term "Tennessee Valley" sufficed.

Most of the urban video images came from Huntsville, with Decatur prominent in several clips featuring fishing and water sports.

A lengthy presentation by State Board of Education member Mary Jane Caylor made no reference to Decatur City Schools' International Baccalaureate program, but the Decatur-Morgan County booth was distributing IB brochures. Prominent at the Huntsville booth was a proclamation that Columbia High School has applied to be an IB school.

"IB is a huge issue for the folks we're trying to attract," said Jim Page, vice president of public policy and business at Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce.

Stereotypes about Alabama make for a hard sell to prospects accustomed to living near D.C.

"We have to dispel those myths and stereotypes," Page said. "They're a little hesitant at first. But as they watch the presentation, you see them changing."

A homerun, of course, is persuading a D.C.-based worker to transfer to the Tennessee Valley. The BRAC presentation is designed around the idea that getting them to visit the Valley is a triple.

Many Decatur hotels, said Page, have offered free lodging for BRAC prospects when they visit. That's unique to Decatur, he said, and he believes it will pay dividends.

"We think if they stay in Decatur on a visit," Page said, "chances are good they'll move to Decatur."

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