By Hiroko Sato
DEVENS -- Fort Devens will soon be able to train more soldiers as the new defense budget provides funding to complete several ongoing construction projects.
Under the National Defense Authorization Act signed Wednesday by President Obama, Devens will receive $8.5 million in military construction funds for fiscal 2013. The funding will enable the fort to finish projects to revamp classrooms, renovate a base store and add garrison space in several buildings. Once renovated, the buildings -- which were mostly built in the 1960s and updated over the years -- will accommodate 500 additional beds for soldiers coming from across the country for training, according to Lt. Col. Steven Egan.
The defense budget, which provides $552.2 billion for national defense and $88.5 billion for "overseas contingencies operations," also allows the Otis and Barnes Air Force National Guard bases to retain jobs while merging the Air Force Electronic Systems Center at Hanscom Air Force Base with the larger Air Force Life Cycle Management Center. The merger has resulted in the reduction of about 170 positions at Hanscom.
Ayer Selectman Gary Luca welcomed the news, saying the federal funding shows the government's commitment to maintaining the fort, which once encompassed all of Devens.
"It's always good to have the Army and Marines there," Luca said.
Given the overall defense budget, the funding for Devens may not be much, "but it's a boost to the local economy," he said.
"The town of Ayer will benefit from any further development of Fort Devens as it's been evident since the closure of (the Army Post in 1996)," Ayer selectmen Chairman James Fay said.
U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, who worked to secure funding for the state's six military bases, said Devens has played important roles in soldier training and that the $8.5 million funding is a modest investment to bring the existing buildings to today's standards.
Although the congressional delegation's efforts to obtain more funding for the Hanscom base were not successful, the National Defense Authorization Act includes language calling for the monitoring of the effectiveness of the reorganization, Tsongas said. The Lowell Democrat said she will work to keep what Hansom has.
"It's important to maintain the ongoing operations there because it has an extraordinary impact on the commonwealth of Massachusetts," Tsongas said of the Hanscom base, which still employs 5,700 people after the reorganization.
Fort Devens began renovating some barracks and classrooms for computer and network training several years ago. Last year, about 45,000 soldiers visited the Main Post, where the renovation projects are, while 100,00 soldiers trained on the fields at South Post and 120,000 are expected for this year, according to Egan. The South Post, which has an automated rifle range built for $4.8 million, provides some of the best training opportunities, he said. Having such ranges by the Main Post has made Fort Devens a place to train New England troops and some from other parts of the country, Egan said.
"Investments in Fort Devens are good news for both the Devens community and the commonwealth," said Marty Jones, president and CEO of MassDevelopment, the quasi-state economic-development agency that provides municipal services to Devens. "The new classroom space and beds coming from the National Defense Authorization Act funds will allow Fort Devens to continue to carry out its critical goals of training and supporting our soldiers."
Follow Hiroko Sato on Twitter @satolowellsun.