Airman 1st Class Sean Wheeler and his wife, Amy, knew that permanent-change-of-station moves were a reality of military life.
When the young couple arrived at Fort Gordon this week in support of new cyber-related missions, though, they were pleasantly surprised at how smooth the transition was.
“We wanted to start networking and figure out what was available,” Wheeler said Thursday during Fort Gordon’s annual Community Expo, his first introduction to the Augusta area. “What we found is that the outreach is incredible.”
In its first year running the community expo, the Fort Gordon Spouses and Civilians Club rolled out the red carpet for the hundreds of military personnel, civilians and contractors already moving in to accept jobs at the new Cyber Center of Excellence, Army Cyber Command and related missions.
Julie Maldonado, the club’s president, said the expo featured 120 attractions, businesses and organizations eager to connect with those associated with Fort Gordon, especially newcomers such as Wheeler, an Air Force cryptology linguist who was reassigned from Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas.
During his visit, Wheeler, 20, learned about the local cuisine from restaurants, got interior design ideas for furniture he bought for his home and received financial advice from community credit unions inside the Gordon Conference and Catering Center.
Amy, 28, networked with spouses for her job as a personal trainer.
“There’s way more people than I expected willing to make sure we feel welcome,” she said.
With 4,000 military-related people expected to relocate to Augusta by 2019, the expo covered many of the main interests of new residents, including quality housing and education.
“Our goal with this event is that people who are new to the area leave with beneficial information, new resources and community contacts that will help them make the most of their time here,” said Maldonado, who expected 200 people to attend the expo, mostly during lunch, when free pizza and beverages were provided.
Chris Johnson, of Fidelity Bank Mortgage, said that area growth remains in new-home construction but that his firm expects a spike in home sales in the next year or two.
He told those in the military interested in buying homes that they usually get the best value with loans made available through the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.
“The flow is continuous,” Johnson said of military homebuyers, who he said are starting to trickle into the market. “They’re coming, and we’re ready to put a face to a name.”
Debbie DeRoller, the development director for Immaculate Conception Catholic School in downtown Augusta, said that the private school’s pre-K program is already full with fort newcomers and that it expects its other grades to grow, too.
She said the school offers a 10 percent discount for active-duty military personnel and civilian employees at Fort Gordon.
“We have given our school and some of our programs a makeover by expanding before-and-after care, adding a course for string instruments and completing renovations,” DeRoller said. “It’s an exciting time.”
The spouses and civilians club assumed leadership of the expo from the CSRA Alliance for Fort Gordon after 11 years of volunteering. The alliance remains a sponsor, along with the Fort Gordon Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation; the Augusta Metro, the Columbia County and the North Augusta chambers of commerce; Papa John’s; and Coca-Cola.
Proceeds fund the club’s scholarship and grant programs, which in the past two years have awarded nearly $50,000 in scholarships and grants to military dependents and community organizations that serve those affiliated with the military.
Maj. Reginald Foster said he hopes to fill that role in March when he retires after 24 years in the Army. Foster hopes to start a small business, possibly through franchising or retail development, and he used the expo to network with Columbia County Chamber of Commerce as a starting point.
“Being stationed here a long time, employees at Fort Gordon do not realize what Augusta area has to offer,” Foster said. “I didn’t know we had boat and trolley tours. Now, I am more aware about what’s happening in the local economy outside the fort’s gates.”