The New Federal City

Huntsville, Ala., is becoming the center of gravity for key agencies.

Harvey Player never intended to move to Alabama. When he and his colleagues at the Missile Defense Agency learned in 2005 that a base closure commission recommended the agency move most of its operations from the Washington suburbs to Redstone Arsenal, an Army installation in North Alabama, they were stunned.

For Player, a retired Army colonel and special assistant to the executive director at MDA, Alabama didn't evoke friendly images. An African-American and native Texan, his thoughts ran more to the bloody civil rights struggles in Selma and Birmingham than to Southern hospitality and sweet tea. He came of age in the 1960s, served in Vietnam, went to Officer Candidate School and pinned on his Army 2nd lieutenant bars in 1967 as the service and the country were roiled by war and racial strife.

"It provided some impressions," Player says. "When you talk about moving to Alabama, did I really want to do that?" He didn't think so. But when MDA Executive Director David Altwegg asked him to give it some thought, he did. Player and his wife, who hails from Jackson, Ala., an hour north of the Gulf Coast, planned to retire in a few years and wanted to move back to the South, although they thought Austin, Texas, or Charlotte, N.C., would be their destination.

In spring 2006, they decided to check out Huntsville, near the Tennessee border, where the Appalachian Mountains dissolve into rolling foothills. They ate in a variety of restaurants, spent some time at the visitors center, and talked to as many people and saw as much as possible in a week's time. They were surprised to discover that dozens of international corporations have significant business operations in Huntsville and the city hosts a range of cultural events. Their consensus: "We figured this would be all right. Whether it's permanent or not, we could decide that later," Player says. They sold their home in Stafford, Va., and in October 2006 moved to Alabama, where Player exchanged his 90-minute Virginia commute for a 10-minute drive to Redstone Arsenal from a new custom-built home.

"There's a difference between northern Alabama and the more rural south," Player says. "The area is very high tech, it's very integrated in terms of people from all walks of life." Four years after the move, Player says, "The only regret I have is we didn't make the decision to move to Huntsville sooner."

Rocket City

Historically an agricultural center, Huntsville once held the distinction of being the Watercress Capital of the World, says Ethan Hadley, vice president of economic development at the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce. But for decades now, anyone familiar with U.S. space operations and history has known Huntsville as Rocket City. It's where the Army eventually moved Wernher von Braun, the pre-eminent German rocket scientist who surrendered to U.S. troops at the end of World War II, to work on the service's ballistic missile program in 1950. Von Braun and a cadre of his top engineers were formative forces in the U.S. civilian space program.

When President Eisenhower created NASA and the Marshall Space Flight Center at Redstone Arsenal in 1960, von Braun became its first director.

Over time, Redstone Arsenal expanded as a number of NASA and military aviation, space and missile organizations migrated to Huntsville, including the Defense Intelligence Agency's Missile and Space Intelligence Center, the Army Space and Missile Defense Command, and its Aviation and Missile Command. Other federal operations have taken root as well, including the FBI's Hazardous Devices School and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' National Center for Explosive Training and Research.

The expansion accelerated with the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission's recommendations. In part to disperse critical defense operations away from the national capital region, a prime terrorist target, the commission directed the removal of nearly 5,000 federal jobs from the Washington metropolitan area to Redstone-mostly professional and senior civilian positions at the Missile Defense Agency and the Army Materiel Command, as well as some subordinate organizations.

"We had no hint we were going to play a dominate role in the 2005 BRAC effort," says MDA's Altwegg. The move is logical, he says, in that it co-locates MDA with the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command. To date, the agency has transferred 1,800 of an eventual 2,248 positions, mostly government civilians and contractor support positions. Altwegg estimates between 15 percent and 20 percent of employees actually will make the transition. MDA will fill the remaining positions with new hires.

Huntsville already has the highest concentration of degreed engineers in the nation. When all the BRAC transfers are completed by Sept. 15, 2011, it will have a significant concentration of senior federal personnel as well.

"The 2005 BRAC represents the largest economic development announcement in Alabama history," says Hadley, who notes that half the Army's weapons procurement budget is spent through Redstone. Not only are thousands of new, high-paying federal jobs coming to Huntsville-by the Chamber's count, a dozen general officers and 119 members of the Senior Executive Service will call North Alabama home as a result of BRAC-the move has spawned a $500 million construction boom for new federal facilities.

What's more, significant contractor expansion under way at nearby Cummings Research Park is accompanying the new government activity. Companies such as Boeing, Dynetics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and SAIC are adding hundreds of local jobs as they expand operations in the region. Not all the growth is government-related, however, Hadley says. The federal sector represents about half the local economy, a balance civic leaders want to maintain.

An 'Intense Period'

All the BRAC movements are putting a lot of stress on military organizations already overwhelmed by expanding missions. Nowhere is that more evident than at the Army Materiel Command, which is moving its entire headquarters from Fort Belvoir, Va., to Redstone Arsenal just as its workforce handles some of the most complex logistical operations in recent history-withdrawing an array of equipment from Iraq and deploying more to Afghanistan.

"We developed a phased transition timeline," says Katharine Kelley, chief program manager of AMC's BRAC division. Since 2007, just over 420 personnel have moved from Belvoir to Huntsville. Another 610 to 620 positions will move by the end of this year. While there are drawbacks to transitioning over a multiyear period, there are benefits as well, she says. The schedule allows AMC time to complete a new headquarters building at Redstone Arsenal before the move, and it allows employees to consider whether they want to make the move. There have been surprising benefits as well: The snowstorm that shuttered the Washington metropolitan area in February for a week was barely felt at AMC operations worldwide, because the Huntsville office was able to pick up the slack.

The transition also complicates the workload at a difficult time, however. New employees are being hired in Huntsville to replace people still working in Virginia; key people in Virginia are training colleagues to take over their jobs when they eventually leave the agency. And many are undecided about their future with AMC.

"If you've got a function that is one [employee] deep, that becomes very important, and we have a fair amount of that across the command," says Kelley. "There are certainly areas where we've got three or four people with the same skill set, but there are also areas where we've got [one person with a unique skill]. What's important? Do we try to keep this person on and hedge the bet that they'll stay, or do we try to find that skill? There are many people right now who are really shouldering double burdens. As good as the phased move is, it has ramifications, and one of the ramifications is that existing employees are really [carrying enormous workloads].

"We are the drawdown effort for Iraq. Everything that is coming back from Iraq, everything that needs to get reset, everything that needs to get fixed, inventoried, cataloged and moved back-that is our core business. The [operating tempo] with that and with BRAC [means] this is definitely an intense period right now. You have to really watch that burden you're putting on employees. Everybody's got a burnout point," she adds.

Mary Quinn, AMC's assistant deputy chief of staff for civilian personnel, says the transition is particularly complicated because it affects mostly civilian employees, many of whom have lived for decades in the Washington area. The agency is trying to accommodate individuals' needs to the extent possible, whether they plan to move to Huntsville, or are looking for other jobs in the Washington area. "They're all important," Quinn says. "We've got to make sure we balance everything."

Unlike most military personnel, civilians generally are not used to moving on a regular basis. What's more, the transition was announced just before the bottom fell out of the real estate market, making it financially difficult, if not impossible, for some employees to even consider moving if they owe more on their homes than they could recoup in a sale, Quinn says.

AMC leaders estimate 25 percent to 30 percent of employees actually will move to Alabama when the transition is completed next summer. The others will retire, look for work outside government, or seek new jobs through a priority placement program to remain in the Washington area.

"The dance at the moment is making sure this next 13 months goes lock, stock with the plan," says Kelley. "The plan will work, but the plan has very little flex. If anything starts to get out of line, we have got to get back on track quickly."

The 'BRAC People'

Mike Edwards was one of the first AMC employees to make the move. "I grew up in Northern Virginia. All my family is still there," he says. Still, when AMC leaders asked the program manager to join the transition team as the lead engineer for the new facility in Huntsville, it didn't take his wife and him long to decide to head south.

"I was 16 miles from work. On a good day-and I mean a good day-it would take me an hour and a half" to get to Fort Belvoir from the family home near Potomac Mills, he says. "Now I'm 23 miles away and it takes me half an hour to get to work."

Edwards, who boasts having the first AMC BRAC baby in Huntsville (his wife was pregnant when they moved), says he has no regrets. The Friday he and his wife were scheduled to fly to Huntsville on a house-hunting trip in 2006 their plane was delayed, causing them to miss an appointment with a school principal in a district they were considering moving to. To their astonishment, the principal and a teacher offered to meet them on Saturday to give them a tour of the school and to discuss the education program. "That really impressed us. My wife is a teacher by training and that was important," he says.

As pioneers of sorts, Edwards and other early arrivals have been able to help their colleagues back in Virginia weigh the pros and cons of moving and avoiding a few pitfalls. For example, Edwards discovered that when signing up for utilities in Alabama, it's useful to have a letter of recommendation from your previous utility provider in Virginia, otherwise you could find yourself putting down a sizable deposit before you can turn on the lights.

As chief of the AMC Transition Team, Thomas Vajentic also was an early arrival in Huntsville. The former Army officer is a veteran of military moves, but he was struck by the outreach his family received from local citizens. "I remember the first time I got a haircut. The first time I went to the grocery store. Everywhere we went it was, 'Are you one of the BRAC people? Welcome to Huntsville,' " he says.

Jennifer Koury, program manager for the Missile Defense Agency's airborne infrared sensors program, had a similar experience. "We were looking for a church, and everywhere people would ask, 'Are you one of the BRAC families? Welcome,' " she says. "I'm not sure everyone knew what BRAC stood for, but they certainly knew we were coming."

Vajentic and other transplants say the Tennessee Valley BRAC Committee has been outstanding in helping the new arrivals. When some AMC employees had trouble finding doctors in the area, Vajentic took the issue to the committee and they set up a teleconference with executives from the three local hospitals to discuss it. As a result, the medical community established a toll-free phone number new arrivals can call to receive the latest information about available doctors.

According to Vajentic, when a small group from AMC visited the area to look for homes, Loren Traylor, vice president of investor relations at the Huntsville Chamber of Commerce and a member of the BRAC committee, arranged a van tour of local school districts so they could meet with education officials.

Schools and medical care are top priorities for most people, Vajentic says. Both have exceeded expectations, he adds, noting he's had three back surgeries since moving to Huntsville.

"The school system here is fantastic. We hadn't expected that," says MDA's Koury, who moved from McLean, Va., in 2007. "My little boy was in private school in Virginia, and when we got here he was behind some of the public school kids. I was floored."

Koury and her husband, then an executive at a technology company in Rockville, Md., never thought they'd move to Alabama, she says. They'd lived in Northern Virginia more than 19 years and considered it home.

But when they learned that her job was being transferred to Huntsville, they decided they'd at least consider it. "I came home after the announcement and said, 'What do you think?' He's from Boston. He said, 'Oh no. I can't imagine.' I said we should probably just go look, and he agreed.

"We came down here and we were both really surprised. It's just beautiful and the people are so friendly. The community was great, the workforce was wonderful. There are a lot of high-tech companies here, and he was impressed," she says. They decided the shorter commute and greater buying power would improve their quality of life. Her husband traded his executive position for a more flexible consulting position in the company.

"We still work long hours here, but it takes a lot less effort. I go to my son's ballgames. We know all our neighbors," says Koury. "I just love it here. We're outdoorsy people, and there's a tremendous amount of hiking and bicycling here.

"When we moved here, we said we can always go back [if it doesn't work out]," she adds. "But I don't think either one of us would go back now."

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