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Missouri Base Tackles Housing Quality Issue

By Staff Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo., Aug. 8, 2000 – When Army Maj. Derik Crotts moved here to become the base's public affairs officer, he looked long and hard before finding a suitable home in the surrounding area for his family.

"Some of the homes the realtor showed us had a lagoon system for sewage treatment," he said. "That system, as I found out, was a place on the corner of the property where the raw sewage goes."

He explained the sewage then sits until broken down naturally. "That was new to me," Crotts said. "I didn't know how to manage that, so I didn't want a home with that."

Crotts wasn't alone. Shoddy construction was endemic in this rural area in southcentral Missouri. "Most of the area is rural and unincorporated, and therefore has no planning and zoning," said Larry Sexton, a businessman from St. Robert, Mo., the town closest to Fort Leonard Wood.

Then, in the late 1990s, the post became home to the Army's chemical and military police schools after the Base Realignment and Closure Commission decided to close their former site at Fort McClellan, Ala. The decision increased Fort Leonard Wood's population considerably.

"We basically saw a 50 percent increase in population," deputy garrison commander Ron Selfors said. "Our student load went up 35 percent, but our funding picture only went up 17 percent."

He said community leaders realized existing housing wouldn't meet the needs of the growing population, and new military housing was out of the question financially. The answer, he said, was to use federal and state grants to start the Regional Commerce and Growth Association, a nonprofit economic-development organization.

The association's goal is to encourage contractors to build to nationally recognized codes and in areas serviced by public infrastructure, director JoAnn Sumner said. New developments that meet these standards are added to a list of RCGA-endorsed properties. That list goes to the base housing office for distribution to incoming service members.

Sexton explained Missouri has no governing authority for enforcing building codes in unincorporated rural areas. "Before 1989, 85 percent of growth here was in the unincorporated areas, some of it was too standard and some not," he said. "But almost all of it relied on septic tanks or lagoons, as opposed to the public sewer system. That was something we desperately wanted to avoid."

The RCGA has two full-time staff members and a nine-member volunteer board of directors. It has no enforcement authority, but its endorsement has gained a certain amount of prestige in the area, said Sexton, who currently serves as the group's board chairman.

"We can't force a young soldier to live in an endorsed project, but we can point out the amenities of an endorsed project vs. other projects that may not have these amenities," he said. To date, RCGA has endorsed six subdivisions of single-family homes and three apartment complexes, with a total capacity of 1,700 families.

Improved housing and a growing population are contributing to commercial growth in the surrounding communities. Several hotels, restaurants and a large department store have sprung up in the past year, and evidence of continuing construction is everywhere.

"Once those rooftops begin to appear, then all of a sudden you begin to have commercial growth," Selfors said.

Crotts can attest to the project's success. He eventually bought a house in one of the new subdivisions. "It's one of the best houses, construction-wise, that I ever bought," he said. "I'm very pleased with what they did."

For more information on the RCGA, visit their Internet site at http://www.wood.army.mil/.

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