Topeka Kansas continues to see the effects of the Pentagon’s decision in 2005 to increase the military’s presence in the state, reflected by the results of the 2010 Census.
Geary County, home to Fort Riley and the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, was the fastest growing county in Kansas between 2000 and 2010. The county, located on the western edge of Fort Riley, saw its population grow by 23 percent to 34,362 residents.
John Armbrust, executive director of the Governor’s Military Council, said it was expected that a large majority of the growth in Geary and Riley counties would be due to the return of the 1st Infantry Division. But he says there are other factors, such as the growth of Kansas State University and economic activity in Pottawatomie County to the east.
“I would think that really, the way that I like to put it, the economic floor has been raised to a different level,” Armbrust said. He said there are “new baselines for sales taxes that are higher, and higher economic activity in the region because of that growth.“
Pottawatomie and Riley counties saw their populations grow 19 percent and 13 percent, respectively.
“It’s good to see the confirmation that the growth is actually happening in the area,” said Gerry Vernon, city manager in Junction City. “Truly, it’s exciting.”
When the division headquarters returned from Germany in 2006, the 1st Infantry Division stood around 11,000 soldiers at Fort Riley. That population has grown to more than 18,500, not counting families, creating a need in the surrounding communities for homes, apartment complexes, schools and basic services.
According to the most recent Fort Riley statistics, the Army post founded in 1853 as an outpost for settlers and traders on the Santa Fe Trail has a $2.2 billion contribution to the Kansas economy.
The BRAC process also brought additional missions to McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, home to an air refueling wing, and Fort Leavenworth where the Army’s Command and General Staff College is based.
The military also consolidated regional prisons by constructing a medium-security facility adjacent to the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, causing the need for additional soldiers and civilians to staff the prison.
Armbrust said the Wichita area is large enough that increased Air Force activities wouldn’t be as pronounced on the community, but the additions to Fort Leavenworth would be felt there. Fort Leavenworth is the oldest continuously staffed Army post west of the Mississippi, founded in 1827.
The only loss was the closure of the Kansas Army Ammunition Plant in Parsons.
Vernon said Junction City built more than 100 homes last year and 200 in 2009, though there are still vacancies in half to two-thirds of the areas slated for new family development available.
“The city responded to the call for more homes and residential. We got it all in, it’s there waiting,” Vernon said. “We’re providing the opportunity and waiting with open arms.”
Vernon said with the county growing in population, Geary may become a target for businesses that look at population before deciding to locate. What the city does need, he said, were more shops, restaurants and a 24-hour pharmacy to satisfy residents’ needs.
Connie Hall, director of the Geary County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the region is getting attention from people who are curious about Fort Riley, Manhattan and the Flint Hills in general. The bureau has worked to put information in the hands of soldiers and their families when they arrive or when they visit for official Army ceremonies.
“We’ve had a big influx and it’s been steady,” Hall said, noting that Junction City prides itself as “The Hometown of Fort Riley.”
State Sen. Roger Reitz, a Manhattan Republican and former city commissioner, said there have been challenges created by the growth, including the scope and timing of building projects to meet the needs of soldiers and their families.
However, Reitz said the Department of Homeland Security’s decision to build a new $650 million National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility adjacent to Kansas State University and the Army’s construction of a new hospital at Fort Riley were the next phases of growth. Combined they represent more than $1 billion in federal funding, translating to construction jobs for the next few years.
“That’s an incredible bounce,” Reitz said.
He also said the availability of flights out of Manhattan’s regional airport has helped development by providing daily access to Dallas and Chicago.
“And the parking lot is big and it’s free,” Reitz said.
Armbrust said the growth at Fort Riley is completed, but it has set the stage for future community development that was expected to lag the rapid increase in soldier populations and more than $1 billion in new construction on the post.