By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
SCOTT AFB — Metro East officials are going all-out to lure a federal intelligence agency to Southern Illinois, doubling their offer of free land on a proposed site that was a prime contender for the same project just a decade ago.
But they face stiff competition from the home base of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency — the city of St. Louis, which is scrambling to buy up or otherwise acquire the necessary property to move the facility from the south side to the north side of the community, near Cass and North Jefferson Avenues.
At stake is a project involving a $1.6 billion investment and more than 3,000 jobs. Two other, less touted sites are also possible, in Fenton and Mehlville, Mo.
A contingent of local and federal leaders has come together in recent weeks to voice its support of the Illinois plan, which received a considerable boost when St. Clair County increased its offer of 182 acres alongside Scott Air Force Base by another 200 acres.
St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern said comments by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers triggered the land offer. The Corps has referred to the project as a “99-year decision,” meaning the need for a site that’s good for a century.
“This would enable NGA to build for generations,” Kern said. “It would not only allow them to have additional buffer or building zone, but it would provide opportunities for NGA to do whatever they wanted on the site.”
With the growing nature of cyber security, he said, NGA might find it useful to have the land available for potential cyber partners down the road.
The Corps of Engineers released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement assessing the qualities of the four competing sites.
Kern said the county is addressing some archaeological concerns that have been pointed out, involving an old German farmhouse on the land.
“We’re ready to go to mitigate the site. We know we’re $150,000 away and about 45 days from having the site mitigated (analyzed and protected),” he said recently.
“There are no other knocks (in the Corps’ report),” Kern said. “We have everything taken care of. There is nothing on this site that prohibits NGA from starting building in the first quarter of 2016. We know we are the only site that meets and exceeds the needs of the NGA.”
Kern, Madison County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and representatives of local congressmen gathered this past month for a press briefing at Scott AFB.
Durbin said the federal delegation supporting the project is both “bicameral and bipartisan.”
Durbin said NGA was under consideration several years ago to be moved to a new facility at Scott Air Force Base during a round of discussions by the Base Closure and Realignment Commission.
“One of the recommendations was to move NGA to Scott Air Force Base.. They didn’t close the deal because they ran out of money,” Durbin said. “They certainly believed it was feasible and advisable at that point.”
NGA says a series of planning studies, including an economic analysis, determined that it will be less costly, quicker and less disruptive to build a new campus, known as NGA West, than to modernize current facilities.
Many of the structures at the current site, 3200 South 2nd and Arsenal Streets, date to the mid-1800s and would require extensive work to be compatible with evolving technology and address ongoing maintenance issues. NGA plans to create a modern, technologically-advanced campus that will allow it to meet its intelligence mission. The agency anticipates moving from its current location in 2021.
“This NGA facility is on a timetable, and the timetable suggests that by the end of the next calendar year our federal government will have control of the real estate necessary for this site for relocation,” Durbin said.
Meanwhile, the St. Louis site is mired by complexities, including one developer with 339 properties that the city is now dealing with, he said, citing one news report.
“It is hard to read this and believe that in 13 months they’ll be able to quiet title on this site for the federal government,” Durbin said.
The property in Illinois, by contrast, is ready to be transferred immediately, he said.
“When you look at it from the viewpoint of the federal government, then Department of Defense and the taxpayers, there is a choice: We can buy a lawsuit, or we can move right in to a new location,” he said.
“(Scott) is also a site that has no surprises — no demolition to be done, no environmental hazards, and that is a significant issue because we know in the past that it’s slowed down a lot of projects,” Durbin said. “This is a site that’s been endorsed before and one that makes more sense than it did (before).”
Dunstan pinned the site’s advantages to the old real estate saw, “location, location, location. This is the best site. If you take the politics out of the decision-making process, and this was just a business decision, this decision would already have been made, even without the additional 200 acres.”
The land being floated by St. Clair County is easily double that of competing sites. The St. Louis city site, for instance, is only 100 square acres.
Asked if he thought Illinois was being unfair in an attempt to pull jobs across the river, Durbin said he sees the decision as more about doing what’s best for the region. Years ago, he said, southwestern Illinois agreed to site a Metro Link station in East St. Louis and allow use of the Eads Bridge to develop Metro Link.
“There was little coming to us initially, but it ultimately helped the entire area,” Durbin said.
“While St. Louis is going to lose a portion of its earnings tax, the investment they are going to have to make to bring NGA to St. Louis won’t be recovered for years,” he said. “Financially, I think it’s a wash.”
On the other hand, placing the site next to Scott AFB “solidifies that site for generations to come and it helps make the case the next time we try to protect Scott in future rounds of BRAC.”
Kern noted that 30 percent of NGA’s employees live in Illinois.
The 182 acres included in the previous county offer is all south of Wherry Road (southwest of a new Interstate 64 interchange now being built). The additional land thrown is an option of two sites:
– One option is 200 acres, mostly north of Wherry Road and east of Old Illinois Route 158; and
– The other is 219 acres south of Wherry Road and west of Old Route 158.
St. Clair County owns all of the properties.
Members of Illinois’ congressional delegation have repeated their support for moving the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to the east side of the Mississippi River.
U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk and Reps. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, and Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, sent separate letters to NGA Director Robert Cardillo highlighting the operational and financial benefits of the site in St. Clair County.
Among the advantages, they say, are location, workforce, interstate access and synergies with the commands located at Scott.
Kirk says Scott is home to the Defense Information Systems Agency. Moving NGA next door would eliminate the vulnerabilities currently associated with the necessary 20-mile-long data connection to the Missouri sites.
“During (a recent visit to Scott), I held a 1-inch thick fiber optic cable, similar to the fiber cable that currently travels over 20 miles from Scott AFB and across the Mississippi River into Missouri. The information flowing along this vulnerable cable is far too vital to our national security to risk losing if the cable is cut or damaged,” Kirk said.
Kirk notes there is precedent for a Scott partnership elsewhere in the NGA system.
“NGA West’s sister site, NGA East, is adjacent to and directly supported by Fort Bevoir in Virginia,” he said. “This move would ensure NGA West employees are offered the additional protection of a military base, as opposed to any potential site in Missouri.”
The letter from congressmen notes that the Midwest Cyber Center of Excellence is being constructed adjacent to Scott. That center could help train and provide access to a qualified local workforce for NGA West.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency delivers intelligence to warfighters, policymakers, intelligence professionals and first responders. It is both an intelligence agency and combat support agency, NGA fulfills national security priorities in partnership with the intelligence community and the Department of Defense. Many of those missions, such as Global Positioning System support, aeronautical safety of navigation and precision targeting support, are accomplished from NGA’s West facilities in St. Louis.
NGA is supposed to announce a decision in March.