Having lived in the Augusta area almost all of my life, I have a great appreciation and respect for Fort Gordon and its inhabitants.
I grew up as an Army brat, and my family settled in Augusta in 1966. Since then, Fort Gordon has played a big part in my life. I grew up knowing the military way and what was expected of me from both my parents and from the military connections we had.
You see, there is not a lot of grey area in the military. Things are generally pretty black and white. You are expected to follow the rules and respect them, whether you agree with them or not.
Well, some things have not changed in the military over the years. There are still rules to follow and things are still done the military way. Because of 9/11, security has been tightened and has made it harder to get on base. This does not mean, however, that you can't get on base.
When I was young there were a lot of things to do on base, and there still are. One of the best public golf courses in the area is on Fort Gordon. There are riding stables, bowling alleys, the dinner theatre and many more activities that are open to the public. All of these things are nice, but they are not the only reason to support Fort Gordon.
There are more than 20,000 employees on Fort Gordon, and more than 69,000 people in the CSRA who are directly related to the fort. All of these people were brought here because of Fort Gordon and have either elected to stay for good, are retirees, or are stationed here. It is our duty to make sure that we as a community show our appreciation for them.
The base means so much to us in so many ways. If we had been cut when the Base Realignment and Closure Commission process was completed, the local economy would have been devastated. Many of our businesses would have suffered or closed. Whole areas of the CSRA would have been effected, some more than others. Could you imagine what would happen to Grovetown if the military had to pull out?
As we all know, Fort Gordon survived BRAC and is growing by leaps and bounds. A new National Security Agency mission on post means that more than 1,000 people will be coming to work in the next year. These 1,000 people will bring families with them and will need a place to live, eat and play, and our county should be their first choice.
Because of this, the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce, along with the help of some key people on post, have begun to reopen communications to ensure that the gate and fence that surrounds Fort Gordon are only for security and not a barrier between our two communities.
On Wednesday, the Chamber put on a breakfast at the new Columbia County Board of Education boardroom. This breakfast was attended by more than 130 chamber members who were looking forward to hearing good things from our panel. This panel consisted of Brig. Gen. Randy Strong, Pat Bucholz and James Hudgins, all from Fort Gordon, as well as County Commission Chairman Ron Cross and state Rep. Ben Harbin.
Gen. Strong spoke about the importance of the community to the group and gave a lot of wonderful information about missions and initiatives coming our way. Now is our chance to support Brig. Gen. Strong and Fort Gordon, so the Chamber has begun some initiatives of our own.
We unveiled a new sticker that will be prominently placed in all chamber member businesses to show their support of our soldiers. We are also doing a study to determine how to interact better. The breakfast was the first of two public meetings; the other will be in October on post and is designed to inform chamber members of opportunities both on and off the base.
We are not stopping there, however; Fort Gordon is growing. It has the Signal Corps there with many highly skilled information technology professionals who would love to stay in the area after they leave the military. The impetus is on us to help them by attracting more IT businesses to the area and helping them find available opportunities in our community.
As Brig. Gen. Strong said, this is a win-win situation. We win by keeping highly skilled people in our area, along with their families; the military wins by being able to interact with these former soldiers after they leave the military.
This is just the beginning of a new relationship between Fort Gordon and Columbia County. The old phrase, "Good fences make good neighbors," is certainly true. In this case, this fence is for security reasons, not to separate our two great communities. I hope that you all will join with me and help the Chamber and Fort Gordon become even better neighbors.
(Robert S. Thurman, vice president of Queensborough National Bank and Trust, is chairman of the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce Business Development Committee.)
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