Lakewood, military team up to manage expansion at Lewis-McChord

Jody Fraser, left, and her daughter Savannah Brown, 13, receive food Wednesday from Libby Weir-Burke at the Fish Food Bank at Lakewood United Methodist Church. Fraser's husband, Mark, is in the Army at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Jody Fraser, left, and her daughter Savannah Brown, 13, receive food Wednesday from Libby Weir-Burke at the Fish Food Bank at Lakewood United Methodist Church. Fraser's husband, Mark, is in the Army at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The Olympian

The most comprehensive blueprint to date toward managing the area's military-related growth calls for closer collaboration between Joint Base Lewis-McChord and surrounding communities and recommends numerous ways to address the stresses on housing, roadways, schools and social services.

Released last week, the growth-coordination plan reiterates that residents of Pierce and Thurston counties are living daily with the impacts of JBLM’s stature as the largest military base in the western United States, the state’s third-largest employer and a regional economic juggernaut.

It also makes clear that the installation’s growth spurt, which began in earnest in 2003 and joined with population growth throughout South Sound, outpaced available planning. The result: a need for millions of dollars in programs and projects, excluding the price of big-ticket transportation improvements, to address these urgent issues, according to the plan.

Without action, the plan notes, JBLM’s operations may be threatened and surrounding communities’ quality of life is at risk.

“It is clear that the South Sound region must work together to preserve and enhance the quality of life for military and civilian communities alike,” it says. “Without a framework for partnering, economic opportunities will be lost and the ... region will struggle to meet some of the most basic needs for military and civilian residents ...”

The City of Lakewood managed the study, paid for with about $1 million from the Department of Defense’s Office of Economic Adjustment and developed in concert with JBLM, more than 90 agencies and organizations and a team of consultants. An earlier plan released in September focused on Interstate 5 congestion around JBLM and recommended improvements carrying a total estimated price tag of between $960 million and $1.1 billion.

JBLM has experienced a boom in recent years as a result of the development of the Stryker concept and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The number of military and civilian personnel grew 54 percent, to 50,587 from 32,700, since 2003. The area’s military-related population, which includes family members and contractors, is estimated at 132,000 people. More than one out of 10 residents living in Pierce and Thurston County has a tie to JBLM, the plan said.

In the next five years, JBLM forecasts about 4,000 additional service members and family members coming to JBLM.

“The big growth has already occurred, and the people are here,” said John Norgren, an installation spokesman. “Now you’re looking at how to address that growth, and regional growth of which we’re a part.”

The growth spurt was largely invisible until this fall. Thera Black, a senior planner with the Thurston Regional Planning Council who assisted with the plan’s development, said that’s because incoming soldiers were typically processed straight through to join their units in combat deployments. The return of 17,000 soldiers over the summer was akin to a giant subdivision moving in, she said.

“This massive development went in overnight and was instantly populated,” Black said.

Congestion on I-5 was the most visible indicator for many residents, but there were others identified in the report. Among them:

Crowded classrooms. Schools are seeing more children from military families, but the plan notes educators often lack the additional support and resources to deal with their unique circumstances, such as a parent deployed or readjusting to civilian life upon returning home.

Limited health-care access. Few area doctors care for service members and their families due to poor reimbursement rates from TRICARE, the health care system for members of the armed forces.

Limited access to food. An estimated 16,000 soldiers and airmen assigned to JBLM are eligible for public food assistance.

An aging wastewater-treatment plant. The plan estimated it will cost $91.2 million to bring the plant up to current standards.

JBLM has pumped billions of dollars of spending in the local communities and will continue to do so. The plan notes the military is expected to spend $3.9 billion on new construction at JBLM between 2006 and 2016. Non-military “spin-off” employment due to JBLM growth is expected to reach nearly 14,300 in Pierce County by 2013 and increases in personal income and housing demand are anticipated in both Thurston and Pierce counties, the plan said.

Dan Penrose, Lakewood’s point man on the plan’s development, said growth at the installation help shield the surrounding communities from the aftermath of the economic collapse.

“The recession would have been a ton worse without 50,000 soldiers, airmen and others at JBLM,” he said.

Christian Hill: 253-274-7390 christian.hill@thenewstribune.com