Reese: Fort Polk Progress to be glue that holds regional growth initiatives together

Tammy Sharp

Editor's note: The following is the second in a series of articles focused on plans to accommodate substantial and impending population growth in the area as a result of the Army's initiative to activate a Battlefield Surveillance Brigade at Fort Polk by 2013.

It's been said that knowledge is of two kinds: we know a subject ourselves or we know where we can find information on it.

How to handle a population surge with an already stressed infrastructure could be counted as a subject that Vernon Parish leaders don't know themselves. But they know where to go to find out. In fact, members of the organization Fort Polk Progress, a coalition of the six geographic parishes surrounding Fort Polk, have recently returned from just such a fact-finding mission to Fort Drum, N.Y.

"It was nice to kind of fast forward a little bit and say 'here's why we're doing this,'" said Fort Polk Progress President Mike Reese of the trip to the home of the 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry).

According to Reese, Watertown, N.Y., is a rural setting, much like the Leesville area, only slightly larger. And much like Leesville and Vernon Parish today, Watertown and Jefferson County in the 1980's faced the challenge of accommodating the activation of a large group of soldiers at nearby Fort Drum.

Reese and fifteen other area leaders visited the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization to learn from that group how it proceeded in similar circumstances. 

Between 1985 and 1990, Fort Drum area leaders visited the Fort Stewart, Ga., area to see how surrounding communities supported that base’s needs. The visit resulted in the formation of the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization (FDRLO). The community-based organization works to preserve positive inter-relationships and communication between the civilian and military communities and leaders in the tri-county region of Northern New York state, around the Army base Fort Drum. 

Fort Drum has an annual economic impact of $1.6 billion, with a population of about 23,077, which includes military, civilians and contractors. Though no military hospital is located on Fort Drum, the military provides five Watertown area hospitals with annual medical support of $26.2 million.

As Fort Drum began to grow in the mid-1980's, the FDRLO "helped keep together all the efforts of the surrounding communities," said Reese, so that they grew "smartly" as they worked to provide additional housing and create and improve elements of the infrastructure, including new sewers. "Something had to be the glue to hold it all together, to keep things coordinated."

According to Reese, FDRLO educated Fort Polk Progress "on how they went about building their network, how they incorporated involvement from surrounding communities to acheive the goal of supporting the growth of the base."

Just like its Fort Drum counterpart, the fledgling Fort Polk Progress seeks to be the force that will help keep the growth in Vernon Parish and the surrounding region coordinated, keep the lines of communication open among the various entities working toward the same goal and be a liaison between Fort Polk and the communities. 

The visit provided area leaders with a much more focused view of what the future of Vernon Parish and the region as a whole might look like.

"We're able to come home with a clearer mind to enter into all these planning initiatives," Reese said, referencing the Vernon Parish Police Jury's contract with the Center for Planning Excellence (CPEX) to create a parish-wide comprehensive plan for future growth and development as well as the City of Leesville's plan to hire a growth coordinator among some of those initiatives just here in Vernon Parish.

"I think the next step for Fort Polk Progress in general is to create a constitution and bylaws and grow our membership so we can assist in keeping all the surrounding communities educated and knowledgeable about (these) initiatives," Reese said. "One of the things we learned from the Fort Drum group is that the constitution and bylaws create our funding mechanism so that we can obtain a full-time executive director who can keep people informed on a daily basis."

Reese used recent efforts to attract a chain restaurant as a good example that illustrates the need for the work that Fort Polk Progress can do. According to Reese, a number of entities have been engrossed in trying to attract chain restaurants to the region, including the cities of Leesville, DeRidder and Alexandria, a group in Shreveport as well as the state's Department of Economic Development and Fort Polk officials.

With so many people working toward the same goal, it's unlikely that all the participants are completely informed about the process, he said. A liaison organization would keep tabs on everyone's progress while also keeping its members informed so that double work can be eliminated and the process can be streamlined for everyone.

"We've got to have that glue that is spending (its time) just constantly finding out what people are doing and keeping everyone educated," Reese said. 

Fort Polk Progress represents Beauregard, Sabine, Vernon, Natchitoches, Allen and Rapides parishes and was formed in April 2008.

The Vernon Parish Chamber of Commerce originated Fort Polk Progress with a State of Louisiana Tier 2 Grant and supports the organization through the Chamber’s Leesville office.

Recently the organization was incorporated by Fort Polk Civilian Aide to Secretary of the Army Jim Hill, an attorney in Shreveport.

The incorporation is one more step in the process of setting up future funding and membership, Reese said.

Leesville Daily Leader