Junction City Awaits BRAC Windfall
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Junction City, Kansas, was supposed to have been one of the big winners under BRAC, that's the Pentagon's Base Realignment Closure plan. The soldier capacity of Fort Riley, the installation next to the city, was set to double.
Junction City eagerly geared up to accommodate the troop surge, but as Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, it has yet to see the economic windfall many anticipated.
FRANK MORRIS: Junction City and Fort Riley have a long history of working together. Take the schools, even the ones located within the installation are run by the local district. And lately that district is severely stretched.
Ms. MALISA BURGESS: So Tyler, you need to scoot over. All right, so today we're going to...
MORRIS: Malisa Burgess is convening class in a former closet, a small, windowless room crammed with books. Well over half the kids packed into Fort Riley Elementary today were not here last year.
Becky Lay, the principal, says most are from military families buffeted by years of continuous war and frequent moves. District-wide, enrollment is up more than 40 percent since 2006.
Ms. BECKY LAY (Principal, Fort Riley Elementary): We as a staff are continuing to, to look for ways to meet the growing number of needs of kids. It's getting harder and harder.
MORRIS: The district has built two schools, borrowing heavily to do it, and superintendent Ron Walker says the district is tapped out.
Mr. RON WALKER (School Superintendent): We've exhausted all sources of financial means. We don't have any way to increase any more money.
MORRIS: The situation is markedly different elsewhere on Fort Riley. More than $2 billion in Pentagon spending has turned large parts of this sprawling installation into a construction zone.
Colonel Kevin Brown, the garrison commander, says the Army's built state-of-the-art medical centers, offices, and tidy homes to accommodate some 9,000 additional soldiers and their families but no schools.
That's next, he says, thanks to a visit by Robert Gates, the U.S. secretary of defense, to Fort Riley last year.
Colonel KEVIN BROWN: And we had a brave spouse who stood up in a town hall session and said: Sir, we're overcrowded, and we're in schools that are more than 50 years old. What can you do to help us out? And at that moment, at that podium, he committed to helping us fix that situation.
MORRIS: That fix, a new grade school on post, is a couple of years off. Meanwhile, there's plenty of empty space elsewhere in Junction City.
Todd Moore, with the chamber of commerce, says the promise of the base expansion sparked a building frenzy a few years ago.
Mr. TODD MOORE (Chamber of Commerce): It was basically - it became a free-for-all. Contractor after contractor was coming in and building homes.
MORRIS: Too many, it turned out. The influx of troops didn't come as fast as hoped. When they did come, many chose to stay in the homes built on base or rented in thousands of newly built apartments around town. Sales of single-family homes off-post languished.
Mr. MOORE: Junction just flat-out got out got excited and wanted to do something for the good. And it ended up kind of biting them in the tail a little bit.
MORRIS: The housing market collapsed, developers folded, and the former mayor was sent to prison for taking bribes. Now, most of the houses have sold, but in places where hundreds of others were planned, the city is left with vacant acres, holding the bill for new streets and utilities installed.
Junction City raised sales taxes, but that hasn't generated a lot of extra money either.
Ms. DENISE CARLSON: Well, thank you.
MORRIS: Denise Carlson owns the new Sears store in town and hasn't seen a big jump in sales.
Ms. CARLSON: Because everybody is just hanging onto their money, I think, part of the problem is. I can't see a lot of change yet, except traffic, a lot more traffic.
MORRIS: Carlson looks forward the expected homecoming this summer of all the soldiers attached to Fort Riley. Junction City officials hope they stay around long enough to put down roots, buy a house and possibly retire there.
For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.
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