By Colleen Flaherty
Killeen Daily Herald

Fort Hood has driven tremendous growth in Central Texas since 2001, and helped insulate the area economy from the recent national downturn.

Despite the drawing down of troop levels in two wars, area development officials said this week that greater Fort Hood — including those cities outside the Killeen-Copperas Cove-Harker Heights sphere — should continue to grow and thrive economically.

Much of that growth will come from Fort Hood, retired Col. Bill Parry said, “long into the future.”

Parry, a former Fort Hood garrison commander, heads the Heart of Texas Defense Alliance, a Killeen-based nonprofit that promotes the sustainability of defense-related entities in Bell, Coryell and Lampasas counties.

In an email interview, Parry said that the post has “the best array of training resources in the Army,” including advanced, simultaneous live-action and virtual training capabilities. There also is ongoing reinvestment in its already excellent infrastructure, he said, including the nearly $1 billion new Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center.

Central Texas also provides room for growth, outstanding flying weather and a uniquely supportive community, he said. “Very few other Army installations enjoy the tremendous capabilities and benefits that Fort Hood does, which is why I classify it as an ‘enduring’ installation.”

Veterans stay

Additionally, Parry said, many veterans are choosing to stay in Central Texas after leaving the Army. According to the alliance’s 2010 Veterans Inventory Initiative, the number of military retirees living in the Killeen-Temple-Fort Hood area has increased by 7 percent since 2008, to 1,198.

Fort Hood Area Association of Realtors spokesperson Jose Segarra said this week that veterans looking to settle outside of the immediate Fort Hood area seem particularly interested in Belton and Temple in recent years. Veterans services, including Temple Veterans Administration Medical Center, are easily accessible here, he said.

The Veterans Initiative also found that in addition to the 30 percent of 4,000 respondents who planned to stay in the area in 2010, an additional 40 percent said they would stay for desirable employment.

Diversifying economies

Development officials from Belton to Gatesville agreed with Parry’s assessment, and said their communities would continue to forge closer social and economic bonds with Fort Hood.

But that doesn’t preclude efforts to diversify their economies.

Belton’s strategy is to continue to market itself as a residential and retail jewel to soldiers, veterans and retirees while wooing new industries, City Manager Sam Listi said.

Belton is a partial funder of the Heart of Texas Defense Alliance, Listi said, which keeps it abreast of Fort Hood’s active-duty troop and separation levels. The Belton Economic Development Corporation is also always looking to draw new businesses to the city, including to its sprawling corporate park on U.S. Highway 190.

“A study we did a couple years ago identified a number of a key market industries we’re trying to attract: office, commercial and industrial-type activities,” he said. “Growing industry while not being too focused on any one industry is the key to sustainability.”

Temple Economic Development Corporation President Lee Peterson said that while Fort Hood factors into every development decision the city makes, it’s not the only factor. Numerous manufacturing companies, processing plants, wholesale businesses and distribution service firms are located in the Temple area, also driving its growth.

Carla Manning, military affairs director for the Gatesville Chamber of Commerce, said that despite the residential and service industry growth her city experienced in the past three years due to the arrival of First Army Division West at North Fort Hood, the post isn’t the city’s only prospect for growth.

“It’s had a nice economic boost to the community, just having soldiers come into town buying, purchasing things, eating,” she said. “It’ll have some impact if they don’t continue to have the National Guard (training at North Fort Hood), but it’s not going to have a huge impact.”

Gatesville’s other major employers include the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and emergency medical equipment supplier Laerdal. Central Texas College also has two satellite programs there.

Lampasas also is trying to bring clean industry to the city, Lampasas Economic Development Corporation Director Cherry Hargrove said in an interview earlier this year. The city bid on a lucrative IT services contract with an unnamed company that wanted a rural location with access to a veteran-based workforce.

It’s since been announced that Lampasas is no longer in the running for the contract, according to published reports, but the brush with small industry gave Lampasas a better idea of where it wants to take its development, Hargrove said.

Other communities, including Belton, bid on the contract, the winner of which hasn’t been announced.

Another Lampasas development goal, Hargrove said, is attracting more soldiers and their families to the county to live, particularly its western region.

Benefits to Killeen

Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce Marketing Director Jonathan Packer said that whatever development occurs in Fort Hood’s expanding footprint going forward will benefit the entire Fort Hood economic region.

“I think we have to understand that it’s not a zero-sum game,” he said. “When Fort Hood grows or Killeen grows, Temple benefits,” and vice versa.