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Indiana City Flourishes After 'Fort Ben' Closure

By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
American Forces Press Service

INDIANAPOLIS, June 15, 2005 – Along Post Road here, the post exchange and commissary are still in business, and the Defense Finance and Accounting Service's Building 1, though remodeled, still stands.

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The prospect of 3,000 new jobs at the Defense Finance and Accounting Service located in Building 1 at the former Fort Benjamin Harrison, Ind., has Lisa Rowe smiling at the Java Junction coffee shop she operates across the street. Rowe says the new jobs will mean more business. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
  

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However, those military facilities are nearly all that remains of the former Fort Benjamin Harrison, located at the northeast corner of Indianapolis in the city of Lawrence.

After the post closed nearly a decade ago as a result of the 1991 base realignment and closure process, more than a million square feet of building space has been demolished. In its place has risen millions of more square feet in new business and housing.

"It took us a little time to get the financing and the infrastructure together to really encourage new development," said Ehren Bingaman, executive director of the Fort Harrison Reuse Authority, the agency charged with redeveloping the post and bringing new business here. "But, boy, since that time we have all kinds of development. Most everything that's still standing is stuff that we deemed historic or that fits into the architectural character that our plan calls for," he said.

So much has been torn down, the old post rarely resembles its former self. Though a few historic markers point to the post's past, most signs signal Lawrence's future, with construction signs advertising that new housing developments and retail and office space are coming soon.

In all, Lawrence has invested $250 million in the 550 acres that once made up the main post area. Plans are in place for a new Lawrence government center building that will house civic organizations. And the city of the Indianapolis has expressed interest in building a library on land where the post bowling alley once stood.

In fact, signs of progress are everywhere, with new businesses and housing developments at every corner. At the former post office, hot cups of latte and cappuccino are now served at the Java Junction.

The big white building that once housed the Defense Information School where servicemembers received training in journalism, broadcasting, public affairs and photography is now called Ivy Tech, where high school students prepare for careers in nursing and other careers.

Inside the post gym, where soldiers once played intramural sports, children and adults learn arts and crafts and take swimming classes at a state-of-the-art YMCA.

Construction is finished on a 19,000-square-foot medical office building, and nine buildings sit in a new 67-acre industrial park. The American Legion has built a 65,000-foot office and warehouse facility next to a 250-unit senior citizen apartment complex.

The housing boom ranges from condominiums and apartments to single-family homes.

Many of the rustic brick officers' quarters on what used to be "Colonel's Row" have been remodeled, and now sell for upwards of $500,000.

"One of the things the Reuse Authority has benefited from is the close proximity of Indianapolis, the 12th largest city in the United States," Bingaman said. "Land is going to be at a premium," he said. About 1,700 acres of the post once used for training was turned into a state park and golf course. "So that's a quality-of-life issue. People like to be near those natural resources, and that's been an attractor to all that's going on here," he said.

That is what attracted Jerry Clifford and his wife, Mary, who bought a two-story red brick colonial. The house is nestled on a tree-lined street near what was the post parade field where Jerry once stood in formation as a young Army Reserve soldier.

"One of the things that initially attracted us was the history of the place," he said. "The fact that things looked older and there were trees and places to walk, that's the type of neighborhood we came from," he said.

The plan for building housing here was "well thought out," said Mary.

"You look at the housing and you've got half-million-dollar homes, but you've also got moderate housing and adult communities. They've really done a nice job of making it a community that is very heterogeneous; there is diversity of cultures here. It was a very neat plan."

Nevertheless, years ago many here thought there was nothing "neat" about the Pentagon's decision to close "Fort Ben," as it is fondly referred to by residents.

When the post closed, some 3,300 military and 1,050 civilian positions left the city. And many here, mostly retirees who had made this area their home, feared their PX and commissary privileges would leave as well.

"A lot of them were very upset," said Sharon Williams, who manages the PX. "They fought, and they fought, and they said, 'We are not going to let our privileges die.'

"We have a lot of retirees who came here to retire because of PX and commissary privileges, and they fought for those privileges," she said.

Williams said the both the PX and commissary were kept open, and other services, such as military clothing sales, Class VI (liquor sales) and convenience shop facilities combined into the main PX store. Although her store is not doing the business it once did, "we are making the bottom line," Williams said.

"We've got loyal customers; that's why we are still standing. We're not doing the millions (in sales) anymore, but we're stable," she said. "They closed the base, but the PX and commissary survived."

But some say the PX and commissary stand in the way of progress here. "We're sitting in a major spot," Williams said. "We're in the way."

The Reuse Authority wants to use that land where the PX and commissary sit -- 12 acres valued at $250,000 an acre -- to build the city's new government center.

Bingaman said that next year the PX and commissary will move into a new building on the site where the old post hospital sits vacant. The hospital will be demolished, and the two facilities will be combined into one store.

He is hopeful construction on the new government center will begin in about three years, and join the newly built Harrison Center, a multi-million-dollar retail and restaurant facility, across the street to form the city's downtown area.

He said the new downtown area will only add to the lure of the post that has attracted more than 100 new companies and civic organizations in the past four years, bringing with them thousands of jobs.

And there are more jobs to come.

The word here is that the Defense Department will relocate as many as 3,500 finance employees to its accounting offices in Building 1.

On the main thoroughfare, Lisa Rowe manages the Java Junction coffee shop that just opened inside the old post mail station across the street. She said the influx of new jobs should more than double her business, keeping her 10 employees busy.

"When we bought the business, we had no clue that many jobs were coming here," she said. "This is going to be great for business."

Which is what Bishop Wellington Dotson, who opened a Primerica Financial Services branch inside the former military clothing sales warehouse located next to other remodeled offices, is hoping for.

Wellington remembers his first days of business here, coming to work in the morning and seeing deer running through the parking lot. "It was that barren," he said.

Now he looks at his surroundings, the brick railyard storage sheds converted into chic office spaces, and sees "opportunity," he said. "In bad times, we do good," he said with a smile. "In good times, we do great."

Many here share that optimism, but it could not have happened without a good plan, said Bingaman.

He remarked on the current round of BRAC closure proposals announced May 13. "We've been through what a lot of communities are going through right now," Bingaman noted. "The downside about BRAC is that there is nothing overnight about this process," he said. "It just takes time to make a lot of things happen."

But with patience and a good plan, he said, the sky is the limit.

"I hope that people can point to us and say, 'How did we do it?'" he said. "And I would say, 'careful planning, cooperation, some ingenuity, creativity and a willingness to take some calculated risks.' As you see, our way turned out OK."

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Related Sites:
Base Realignment and Closure
Lawrence, Ind.

Click photo for screen-resolution imageJerry and Mary Clifford, who bought a red brick colonial in one of the new communities of Fort Benjamin Harrison, say they were attracted by the old post's historic charm. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageIvy Tech State College currently occupies the building that once housed the Defense Information School at Fort Benjamin Harrison. Ivy Tech has more than 1,500 students attending classes on the campus. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageThe former gymnasium at Fort Benjamin Harrison was bought by the YMCA and now has the second largest membership in the state. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageThe Harrison Center, less than four years old, highlights the construction boom on the former Fort Benjamin Harrison, Ind. The center's retail space and restaurants will complement a new government building that is planned across the street. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA  
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