For all the political attention it's getting, the site search for a new U.S. Army headquarters is currently playing out behind the scenes like a run-of-the-mill real-estate search, an Army spokesman says.
A "ground team" from the Army Futures Command visited Raleigh for two days last week, and as with subsequent visits this week to Boston and Austin, spent much of its time looking at office buildings the service can lease, said Col. Patrick Seiber, spokesman for the new headquarters.
The team has to figure out how much renovation the buildings might need, keeping in mind that the Army wants the new headquarters fully up and running in its new home by July 2019, he said.
The process should be familiar to anyone who's watched an episode of HGTV's "Flip or Flop" as the key thing is to come up with a good cost estimate for the renovations, Seiber said.
But the team's also trying "to get a feel for traffic and living conditions" in the cities it's visiting ahead of the Army's anticipated decision this summer about where it'll put the new headquarters.
And of course, "the other part is you're going to meet with civic leaders," he said.
State and local officials are in fact pushing hard to land Futures Command, which will house a four-star general and about 500 other uniformed and civilian personnel assigned to orchestrate the development of new weapons systems for the Army.
U.S. Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr are involved in the recruiting, as is Gov. Roy Cooper, Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane, the UNC system and an assortment of state agencies and private economic development groups. A nonprofit called the N.C. Military Foundation is coordinating the effort.
The ground team's arrival, it's fair to say, signified that Raleigh, Boston and now Austin "are in the next round" as far as the Army's concerned, Seiber said.
Previously the Army had narrowed its list to 15 cities, with the other 12 being Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York City, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle.
Any of those cities could still be under consideration, as Seiber discounted a Bloomberg News report early this week that the competition is now down to just five cities. That report said Raleigh and Boston were two of five finalists and did not name the other three, information that The News & Observer also reported. Tillis' office confirmed to The N&O that Raleigh was on the short list.
"I'm not sure where the number five is coming from," Seiber said. "The outlets I've talked with, I've not confirmed that number."
In theory, that leaves the Army free to consider more than five cities or fewer than five as it goes through what Seiber called the "middle phase" of a search that's supposed to end with Secretary of the Army Mark Esper's announcement of the final selection by the end of this month.
The process has changed a bit along the way, at least from what N.C. Military Foundation officials expected when it briefed local officials in April.
Back then, the foundation thought the Army would cull an initial list of 30 cities down to 10, and then send teams to reconnoiter each of the 10.
The Army instead kept 15 cities after the first cut. So far, the recon effort appears to be unfolding as predicted, though it's far from clear that all 15 of the survivors will get a look from the ground team.
The final phase of the search is supposed to be a visit from Army Undersecretary Ryan McCarthy and Vice Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville. They in turn would send a recommendation to Esper and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley.
Of that group, Milley's the standout when it comes to having North Carolina ties. Before taking over as chief of staff in 2015, he led U.S. Army Forces Command, the Fort Bragg-based headquarters that organizes the training of soldiers.
Army leaders have said they're looking for a city that can put Futures Command in close proximity to academia and business, the better to tap the expertise of those sectors as they figure how to replace such aging weapons systems as the M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
It's not clear, even to Seiber, exactly how much floor space the ground team needs. But the Army's looking to rent, not buy or build, and part of the building has to be secure enough to accommodate classified work.
The headquarters will also need "some open space where it's easy to get in and out of the building," recognizing that "innovators and scientists don't necessarily want to go down to Fort Bragg and go through all that to see somebody," he said.