Growth at Fort Riley helps area recover

Development continues at and near Fort Riley, despite the debacle of overbuilding, misjudgment and corruption in the area over the past five years.

Although some Wichita firms were burned by the Junction City housing bust, a few Wichita companies remain in the area and are doing quite well.

On the base, the U.S. Army is partway through $1.9 billion in new construction and renovation to accommodate the return of the First Infantry Division from Germany.

The base has built new barracks, new brigade and company headquarters, plus many other buildings. It is embarking on a new $400 million hospital.

GLMV Architecture, a partnership of the former Gossen Livingston and McCluggage Van Sickle and Perry firms, has designed a number of buildings, said architect Roulie Raftopoulos.

Professional Engineering Consultants, working with GLMV, has done the engineering work.

They will be working at the fort for three or four more years, said Raftopoulos.

"There is a long way to go," he said. "It's not something that will be complete in the next year."

There are now nearly 19,000 soldiers at the base, up from about 9,500 in 2005, but because the soldiers keep getting deployed, they often don't bring their families. That is what has slowed demand for off-base single-family homes.

"The families are starting to arrive, but not at the same rate the soldiers did," said Mike Goreham, Fort Riley's chief, planning division, public works.

The soldiers, knowing they would be deployed, kept their families elsewhere or left them in Germany, he said.

"The numbers of families are steadily increasing," Goreham said. "Eventually, the situation will stabilize and perhaps 60 percent of the soldiers will have families."

Outside the base, the speculative overbuilding of housing in Junction City in anticipation of the influx put many builders out of business and got a city commissioner and a developer convicted of bribery.

Since 2004, the city has annexed 1,500 acres and had 52 subdivisions develop.

The city went into debt to buy land and install roads and utilities to supply the expected subdivisions. The city has $124 million in debt, as of last year.

Much of that debt was to be paid back through specials. The shortfall in construction has led a heavy tax burden on the city. The city manager resigned in August.

But the gradual buildup at the base, and people buying at foreclosure prices, seem to be slowly absorbing the oversupply in Junction City, said Laurie Crites, president of the Junction City Board of Realtors.

"We had a sizable amount of inventory, and we're getting through that quite nicely," Crites said.

One of the builders, Robert Harris of Harris Custom Homes in Wichita, stopped building in Junction City when the price of lots doubled and building practices didn't meet his standard, but he continues to build in nearby Manhattan, Wakefield and Chapman.

Soldiers are buying the bulk of his homes, he said.

There is money to be made from the growth of the base, Harris said, just not the kind of boom-time windfall once expected.

"That was just crazy," he said.