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New Branch of Texas A&M Could Shake up Fort Hood's Economy

Luke Quinton for KUT News

The Army announced recently that it plans to eliminate combat brigades at 12 military bases. That’s a total of 80,000 soldiers. The cutbacks come as communities are already dealing with government furloughs. But military towns are trying to keep the old boom and bust economy a thing of the past.

Fort Hood is like a city. When it became a base in the 1940s, it cleared out 1,200 farms. Now it’s home to more than 40,000 assigned soldiers and tens of thousands of civilian workers. The base brings $25 billion to the Texas economy each year.

Bill Parry is with the Heart of Texas Defense Alliance. He says that the brigade represents just seven percent of Fort Hood’s fighting force.

“While I say it could be a lot worse; yes, we could have in fact lost 14 percent of our in-strength,” Parry says. “Or, God Forbid, some place likeFort Knox, Kentucky, which lost 43 percent of its assigned in-strength.”

Keeping Killeen Open

Serious cuts can turn military communities to ghost towns. There are subtle signs, though, that a new economy is trying to emerge here.

On the strip of road that passes south of the base, you see pawn shops and tattoo

parlors, used car lots, and billboards offering help with your foreclosed home. There’s hardly a tree in sight. Patches of grass are baked brown from the Texas heat.

So it’s a surprise when you take Highway 195 south, and a sleek new building rises out of the hill country. There’s a second one just like it, under construction next door.

Marc Nigliazzo is the President of Texas A&M University-Central Texas(TAMU-CT). “Everyone calls me Doctor Marc,” he says, laughing. He explained that this is the only public university for a hundred miles in all directions.

The new buildings are making the institution excited about the future. “We were scattered all over town – sometimes in the high schools," Nigliazzo says. "The school of Education – and our library – is still in an old middle school across town.”

Right now, the university graduates less than a thousand students per semester. But it fills a distinct hole. Nigliazzo pointed to a map that showed the lack of public universities nearby. Then, he pointed to a graph that made the need clear. It showed that people around Fort Hood were more likely to have “some college” than the average. But they were about 30 percent less likely to have undergraduate or graduate degrees.

In thirty years, TAMU-CT expects to enroll 15,000 students. Folks here worked hard to bring changes like this new institution, Nigliazzo says.

“During the first Gulf War, when families went home and people boarded up their stores – I think the area sort of made a decision at that point, that they didn’t want to see that happen again.”

Fighting For the Future

Nigliazzo says that Killeen’s town leaders realized that it had to clean up its act.

“If you surround us with tattoo parlors and beer joints, then the university will build a wall around itself. That’s what universities do; many have. But you have an incredible opportunity here to integrate the two.”

One of the young institutions great hopes hinges on a brand new solar energy testing ground. It will be an 800-acre facility that comes at a cost of $600 million. And many in the community are pointing to this as a sign that the military research could find a home in Killeen and the new university.

There are no guarantees. Still, something is in the air, since 70,000 people have moved to the region this past decade. But ultimately, as leaders here know too well, it’s keeping them that’s the challenge.

I'm a freelance writer for the Austin American Statesman and others.
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