Cuts at Fort Bragg could alter growth in Harnett, Lee

Mar. 23, 2014 @ 05:02 AM

As Fort Bragg has grown, so have its surrounding areas.

In the last seven years, nationwide base closures sent thousands more troops to the base. And with those troops came their families, plus the civilian workers needed to help maintain a growing military installation.

That has all led to a boom in the housing market, particularly in Harnett County.

“It’s crazy down here,” said Shane Cox, a former president of the Sanford Association of Realtors who shifted his focus from Lee County to Harnett County last summer. “I predominately worked, about 10 years, in the Sanford market. ... And it’s just a world of difference (in Harnett County). It’s amazing what a few miles can do.”

But with military leaders at the national level now calling for a significant reduction in the size of the Army, future growth at Fort Bragg — the largest U.S. Army base in the world — isn’t as sure of a thing as it was even a few months ago.

The Pentagon has suggested, as a money-saving move, that it could cut as many as 80,000 people from the Army’s current force of 520,000 active duty troops.

Already, 440th Airlift Wing — which operates Fort Bragg’s only permanent aircraft, 12 massive C-130 transport planes — is scheduled to be deactivated in September along with its 1,500 active duty, reserve and civilian members.

While the loss of that unit could affect operations on the base, it would hardly make a dent in Fort Bragg’s current force of more than 70,000 people.

Yet if budget cuts eventually hit Fort Bragg in larger numbers, it could be bad news for the realtors who have seen an influx of troops bolster home sales in a market which is otherwise still hurting from the recession.

Cox said he’s not overly concerned about the cuts, though, and he thinks growth in Harnett County will remain stable — and that it will in turn benefit Lee County.

“Lee County’s been growing this way,” he said of the western Harnett area between Sanford and Fort Bragg. “... Given the choice, most folks are probably going to want to go to Sanford rather than Fayetteville. And that’s why you see a lot of growth in the south (of Lee County) — because they’re trying to pull people in from Harnett County.”

A Walmart Express was built recently in Broadway, and a Hobby Lobby and Marshall’s — along with tens of thousands of square feet more of yet-to-be-announced retail — are planned to soon open up near the newly revitalized South Side Plaza, which is located on Horner Boulevard about 20 minutes north of Carolina Lakes and Anderson Creek, two Harnett County developments popular with military families.

Another Sanford real estate agent who focuses much of his attention on western Harnett is Chris Tacia. Like Cox, Tacia said he hasn’t been following discussions about military cuts closely but also isn’t overly concerned.

He said that especially with the base’s recent additions, “it would seem odd to me to get rid of what they just brought in. But weird things do happen.”

Bob Bridwell, the planning director for Lee County as well as chairman of a regional group of planning officials from counties around Fort Bragg, also said Fort Bragg ought to emerge from the budget cuts mostly unscathed.

In fact, Bridwell said, Bragg could even see net growth if the military were to continue its recent strategy of cutting other bases and moving the leftover units there. And even if he’s wrong, Bridwell said, cuts to Bragg won’t harm Lee County nearly as much as Harnett, Cumberland and even Moore counties.

“We were never expecting as much growth as some of the really aggressive proponents of realignment were,” he said. “We were expecting a couple hundred families at most (from the base’s recent expansion), and I think that’s what happened.”

Tacia said that’s what he has seen as well, explaining that the Lee-Harnett border is about 45 minutes from Fort Bragg, so the relatively few military families who did move to Lee County have mainly concentrated near the county line in order to keep commutes short. But one thing that has helped the southern and eastern parts of Lee County grow, he said, is the newly completed 421 Bypass.

“I’ve found that if a couple’s moving to this area, one may work at Bragg and one may work in Wake County,” Tacia said. “And with the bypass, they can get there a lot quicker. So it has definitely led to more interest in the area than before it was built.”