Highly detailed plans to move the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency from its current home near downtown St. Louis to a $1.6 billion facility at Scott Air Force Base have been on the drawing board for more than a decade.
Minutes from the May 9, 2005, meeting of top Pentagon leaders show they considered just one option for moving NGA from its cramped and aging facility at the old St. Louis Arsenal at 3200 S. 2nd St., in St. Louis — the move to Scott, because that was the only option that made sense in terms of cost savings, security, improved efficiency and enhanced mission performance, according to a copy of the minutes, which were obtained by the News-Democrat.
Michael W. Wynne, who was the chairman of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission’s Infrastructure Executive Council, told the News-Democrat he could only recall one site being discussed when the seven-member council met at the Pentagon in 2005 for a closed-door session regarding the fate of the NGA facility in St. Louis.
Everyone at the council meeting agreed that NGA, a highly-classified Pentagon intelligence agency that makes military and intelligence maps based on satellite imagery, could not remain much longer at its St. Louis home, which has been in continuous use since 1827, because of its age and the growing cost of operations and maintenance, according to Wynne, who is now a defense industry consultant.
“So the thought was they needed to find a new structure for consolidation,” said Wynne, who in early 2005 held the title of principal deputy under secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. From November 2005 to June 2008, he served as Air Force secretary.
Scott made a natural choice for NGA’s new home because of “the inclusive security, the housing, the cost of living — all of those things would play to the benefit of Belleville and Scott Air Force Base.”
Moving both NGA facilities to Scott and Fort Belvoir, respectively, would result in estimated annual savings to the federal government of $140.7 million, according to the meeting minutes, which did not contain a separate break-out on cost savings for each facility.
The May 9, 2005, council meeting minutes and Wynne’s recollections are significant because they offer the first public glimpse into the history of the behind-the-scenes decision-making behind the politically contentious search for a new home for the St. Louis NGA campus and the 3,100 jobs connected to it.
Robert Cardillo, NGA’s chief, is set to announce his choice for NGA’s new home in March. Officially, four sites are being considered — two in St. Louis County, one in North St. Louis and Scott. Cardillo’s decision will be a culmination of a site selection process that began 15 months ago.
Realistically, though, only two sites are considered still in the running: North St. Louis, which has the backing of Missouri leaders, and a 182-acre tract in St. Clair County next door to Scott, which is being promoted by county and Illinois leaders.
More than a week ago, St. Clair County leaders sought to up the ante by offering 200 acres of county land to NGA, in addition to the 182-acre tract, which is also being offered free of charge.
“Placing NGA close to their customers and the people that supply them information is in the best interest of NGA,” said St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern, during the Nov. 16 press conference to announce the offer of 200 more acres. “In addition, placing them on a site that’s nearly 400 acres, as to one one-fourth the size” — the North St. Louis site — “provides them with a lot of room to be able to grow, to expand or do whatever they wish on their property. It provides them with a lot more opportunity and a lot more flexibility in the future.
Wynne’s blue ribbon infrastructure committee — whose members consisted of the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force, as well as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — considered two pieces of business when they met in 2005 to discuss NGA’s future.
First, council members were tasked with coming up with a game plan for consolidating the four NGA facilities operating in the Washington, D.C. area. The council agreed to shut down all four and consolidate them, and their combined 8,500 employees, into a 2.77 million square-foot facility called NGA East at Fort Belvoir, Va.
Following through on those plans, NGA East was completed in 2011.
Second, the council agreed to move NGA from its facilities in St. Louis and Arnold, Mo., to Scott Air Force Base. The plan was approved subject to confirmation from Carole A. Haave, at the time the Pentagon’s deputy under secretary of defense (Intelligence) counterintelligence and security.
Wynne said he is not sure why plans regarding NGA West have sat in limbo for a decade.
“I can only tell you that the sequester has hit everybody,” Wynne said, alluding to the automatic 10-percent budget-cutting mechanism that Congress enacted several years ago to drive down the nation’s deficit.
Wynne offered another theory for the delay: “There could’ve been a political debate that has not yet been settled,” he said.
Maggie Crane, a spokeswoman for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, one of the most ardent promoters of the North St. Louis site, said in an email the BRAC council’s recommendation to move NGA West to Scott is “hardly relevant today,” because it doesn’t influence the current decision being undertaken by NGA.
“A proposal that was raised, considered, and then rejected 10 years ago — by a different set of individuals, under different considerations — is even less relevant now than it was then,” Crane wrote.
Crane further noted that, “By design, the councils consider thousands of courses of actions with respect to closing or realigning facilities — the majority of which are not implemented. So, it’s hardly relevant today. In fact, if you choose to make the old NGA proposal relevant, it would only make logical sense to also make relevant the old proposal to pull major operations from Scott AFB. Those proposals were made — and rejected — by the same group of councils that rejected the NGA move.”
Slay and other proponents of the North St. Louis site — a 100-acre parcel in one of St. Louis’ most crime-ridden ZIP codes — have based their arguments on the idea that NGA’s presence could revitalize a blighted neighborhood, while moving NGA from St. Louis could prove economically devastating to the city, which depends heavily on the nearly $2.2 million in annual income tax revenue from current NGA workers who live outside the city.
Wynne acknowledged that NGA West could play an important economic development role, no matter where it lands.
“I would say this, clearly, you can’t leave the cities to go into decay so you got to figure out how do I sort of do everything I can to allow their survival from a government perspective?” Wynne said. “At the same time you need to ask yourself, ‘I need to retain as much as I can of the technical support staff, which is the heart beat of NGA.’ So those two arguments are probably being robustly discussed.”
State and county officials are convinced the St. Clair County site has big, even overwhelming advantages over the proposed North St. Louis site when it comes to serving the needs of NGA. The 100-acre North St. Louis suffers from some major drawbacks, not least of which is the fact that nearly half of the parcels are still controlled by businessman Paul McKee, while many other parcels would have to acquired through eminent domain to enable the city to gain control of them.
St. Clair County officials are quick to note that while the cost to U.S. taxpayers to acquire the 382-acre county size will be zero, the cost of acquiring the North St. Louis site will add up to at least $130 million — that is, if all the necessary parcels can be acquired by the city by the 2017 deadline.
What’s more, the U.S. Transportation Command, based at Scott, is already a major NGA customer, and moving NGA to the St. Clair County site would provide major cost savings and a big boost in security — arguments county leaders are making today, echoing the exact same arguments the BRAC infrastructure panel made in 2005 in pushing for NGA’s relocation to Scott.
But worries are arising on the Illinois side of the river that backroom political deal-making will prevail over logic and commonsense, and that in the end the federal government will use the power of tax dollars to revive the struggling St. Louis neighborhood that Missouri officials favor.
To help ease these worries, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, nearly two weeks ago sent a letter to Cardillo, NGA’s director and a friend of Kirk’s, urging Cardillo to consider “three unrivaled strengths” about the St. Clair County site as a new home for the top-secret spy agency, which specializes in generating defense and intelligence maps based on classified satellite imagery.
Moving the NGA campus from its current location near downtown St. Louis to Scott would “eliminate the vulnerabilities” associated with the 20-mile data connection that exists between Scott, the home of the Defense Information Systems Agency, or DISA, and the current NGA site, Kirk wrote in the Nov. 10 letter.
To underscore his arguments for St. Clair County, and against the proposed North St. Louis site, Kirk attached to his letter to Cardillo a memo that highlighted Kirk’s “concerns that could harm NGA if it located to St. Louis.”
These concerns include: The difficulty of securing 100 acres for the North St. Louis site because of eminent domain issues; the lack of local political consensus over the North St. Louis venue; the need to connect NGA to DISA via 20-mile fiber-optic line that crosses the Mississippi River; and St. Clair County’s willingness to donate the 182 acres worth $5.5 million to secure that site.
Crane, the Mayor Slay spokeswoman, dismissed the idea that in view of top military planners’ 2005 recommendation to move NGA West to Scott, that the current four-way competition is for show and a way of mollifying Missouri lawmakers, and that the outcome has already been pre-ordained.
NGA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — which is overseeing the site selection process — “have clearly stated that any of the four sites selected would allow NGA to carry out its mission and support national security, otherwise they would not have selected them,” Crane wrote. “From the NGA’s own strategic plan goal: ‘Embrace the open geospatial community: engage, contribute to and leverage the vibrancy of the public space.’ The City of St. Louis site provides the NGA the best opportunity to do just that.”
Don Kerr, a NGA spokesman, denied any decision has been made regarding NGA West’s new home.
“NGA has made no decisions at this time regarding choosing a location for the future campus of the agency – pre-determined or otherwise,” Kerr said. “We are carefully reviewing all relevant data and public input before making a decision, including the findings of the environmental analysis, as well as economic, technical, security and other factors before deciding on the location that best meets our needs and requirements.”