Fort Belvoir and community leaders reconnect, discuss common priorities
Fort Belvoir Garrison Commander Col. Joseph Messina welcomed elected officials and business and education leaders from the surrounding community to a Feb. 22 luncheon for the purpose of building stronger bonds, developing common goals and finding opportunities for collaboration. It was the first time in three years that garrison leadership was able to hold the Fort Belvoir Community Leaders’ Forum due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Messina, who has served for 30 years in the Army and assumed command at Fort Belvoir last August, said he was interested in bringing the military installation and surrounding community together to find efficiencies and economic benefits for everybody.
“We are invested in this community, and one of the things I’m interested in is ways to make that investment more worthwhile for everybody,” said Messina. He highlighted some important data points for community leaders — around 10,000 people live on the garrison, and between 30,000 and 40,000 people work there. Additionally, Fort Belvoir is the largest employer in Fairfax County, has the largest elementary school campus in the county and has a $25 billion economic impact on the region, according to Fort Belvoir data.
With all the daily commuting to and from the garrison, Messina said he’s often asked why some access points are still closed. Because so many jobs are available in the region and gate guard positions tend to be relatively low paid, the installation lacks the manpower to keep all the security gates staffed, said Messina. As a result, he has to make strategic decisions about which ones to keep open.
“We’re somewhere between 44% and 46% of our authorized strength for gates, so right before the holidays, I made the decision to close Walker Gate, and I don’t foresee that opening in the near future,” said Messina. He said he also gets asked why they don’t open the recently constructed and “beautiful,” $25 million Lieber Gate. “The answer is, Pence Gate is where the hospital is at, so if I have to make a decision to close that beautiful gate … or choose to close the gate that people go to the hospital to, I think it’s a pretty common sense and easy decision to make,” he said.
As part of the garrison’s reopening, community members will be invited to attend certain events on Fort Belvoir, said Messina, including an upcoming concert in May by the Lt. Dan Band featuring popular actor and military supporter Gary Sinise.
Following Messina’s remarks, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chair Jeff McKay shared his own experience growing up as an Air Force dependent who learned to swim at Fort Belvoir, attended Woodlawn Elementary and Whitman Middle School with many military kids, and often went to events at the Officers’ Club where the Feb. 22 luncheon was held.
“Growing up in this community gives you an appreciation for the challenges and the opportunities, but also the blessings we have of having Fort Belvoir right here in our backyard,” he said.
McKay went on to stress that county leaders want to do whatever is possible to help veterans and military spouses transition into the 130,000 open job opportunities in the Washington, D.C. region. To fill those vacancies, both the county and Fort Belvoir have a shared interest in making affordable housing available to prospective employees, said McKay, as well as providing affordable childcare to families.
Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) and the county’s School Age Child Care (SACC) program are integral to supporting military families’ childcare needs, said McKay. “Keeping that SACC program on a sliding fee scale that recognizes the ability to pay is an important priority of the county,” he said.
Other community leaders and Fort Belvoir organizations invited to make presentations at the forum included FCPS Superintendent Michelle Reid; Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chair at-Large Ann Wheeler; Northern Virginia Regional Commission Director of Military Affairs Peggy Tadej; Mount Vernon Springfield Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Holly Dougherty; Quantico Belvoir Regional Business Alliance Chair Miles Friedman; Deputy to the Garrison Commander John Moeller; Transition Assistance Program Manager Crystal Griffin; USO Warrior and Family Center Manager Ali Lopez; and Directorate of Family, Morale, Welfare and Recreation Director George Dickson.