Kent Thomas is always on a mission. Last Thursday, the 24-year U.S. Army veteran addressed the open Phelps County Commission meeting as to the need of mindful networking on all things Fort Leonard Wood (FLW), when planning and implementing county business.

Kent Thomas is always on a mission. Last Thursday, the 24-year U.S. Army veteran addressed the open Phelps County Commission meeting as to the need of mindful networking on all things Fort Leonard Wood (FLW), when planning and implementing county business.

Thomas is the executive director of both the Leonard Wood Institute and the Sustainable Ozarks Partnership. He gets paid to promote the regional economic powerhouse interests of Fort Leonard Wood. He knows he needs to package the region's benefits to solidify the value of not only FLW, but also the region. It's a package that has to appeal to a wide spectrum of stakeholders, from not only county governments and its citizens, but also state and national politicians that influence the priority and flow of taxpayer's dollars.

It's a big job, but somebody's got to do it. 2013 was a wake-up call for FLW proponents. That's when the Army 2020 PEA report came out recommending a reduction of approximately 5,300 soldiers and Army civilians at Fort Polk, in Louisiana. In the end, only 388 troops were eliminated but the scare has had a lasting affect on the nation's 29 military installations on a review list, that includes FLW.

Thomas gave the commission an idea of FLW's effect within the region as an economic driver:
n total expenditures: $1,241,215,238
n direct jobs: 26,349
n total jobs: 39,316
n total wages: $1,807,763,324
n total economic impact: $2,894,132,618

Thomas asked the commission to get involved in the Sustainable Ozarks Partnership, a group that was instrumental in highlighting the strengths of the region and therefore preventing a significant downsize of troops following the 2020 PEA report.

He said the commission could help with requests for economic impact information for comparative analysis. Thomas mentioned this data was invaluable when FLW was threatened with a drawdown of troops in 2010.
"If we look at the [historical] sales tax revenue in Phelps County, it has gone up," he explained. If we look at Laclede County, it has gone up. If we look at Pulaski County, it stayed level. When we lost positions at FLW, it showed."

He reminded the commission to keep FLW in mind when it talks to the congressional delegation. Thomas said a year and a half ago, the hospital at FLW was on the short list to close.
"If they close that hospital, they might as well close the installation, because that means the soldiers can't get care in the mandated length of time and they will move basic training and advanced individual training to other posts," he noted.

"They have done this successfully in South Carolina because there is a major hospital outside the gate. They have done this successfully at Ft. Sill, Okl. because Lawton has a hospital that is two minutes outside the gate. They backed off that for FLW, because it is categorized as a rural post."
"Though Phelps, Laclede and Texas counties have good hospitals, it would mean a thirty minute drive for those in Pulaski," he said. "That hospital will take care of us, even if we're not military in case of an emergency."

Commissioner Larry Stratman noted the FLW hospital was not up to standards and that cost to bring the hospital up to standards could be a stumbling block. Those standards include the size of some of the operating rooms.
Thomas acknowledged that fact and said, "The current hospital commander has about $16 million to upgrade those operating rooms." Thomas mentioned that the biggest issue is getting the space needed to place all of the orthopedic surgery equipment required in today's modern surgery rooms.
"In the meantime, Phelps County Regional Medical Center has agreed to take on all the orthopedic surgery for the next year and a half while they are getting their operating rooms rebuilt," he said.
They have also decided to divide up physicians. As an example, Thomas said the need for urologists at FLW Community Hospital is not great. "So, the two urologists in Phelps County are taking care of that," he added.
"The health medical command has been out to see the hospital and has completed an assessment- that's the first critical step. The surgeon general of the Army is going to be here in February, and we are trying to get her to take a look at the hospital. We also have our Congressional delegation working it hard."

Thomas implored the county commission to work together to promote the best interests of FLW. "We are just so small out here," he pleaded. "If we don't work together as about 200,000 people in these four counties (Pulaski, Phelps, Laclede and Texas) we will be taken to the cleaners. Even if we don't have a base-line [budget] closure, they will do it as death by a thousand cuts." He said the program is one of a gradual reduction, taking one unit at a time to diminish the value of a base until closure can occur from an eventual negative cost/benefit study.

To combat this, Thomas and his associates are piecing together programs to hold that value.
"The people we're having the most success right now are the Marines," he said.
"We have 1,200 Marines training on the post right now. They do all of their MP training, their truck driver training, some of their engineer and chemical training there. They love us because we're better than [Base Camp] Lejeune or Camp Pendleton. [FLW] is a nicer place than the two biggest Marine Corps installations. Working with Sen. McCaskill, we also have a Homeland Security operation that we can train there for rail-head and chemical security."
"I know it's easiest to get focused on the immediate needs of the county," he reasoned. "I would just ask you to keep us in the back of your mind. If we lose that post, it will be devastating to the region."