COVID-19 is causing delays in a wide variety of projects and activities, but conversion of the old Fairmont Creamery into a technology innovations park for defense contractors isn’t one of them.
Brad Cooksey, president of the Lawton Economic Development Corporation (LEDC) said last week that LEDC has signed the contract to purchase the creamery from the owner of record John Rutherford.
LEDC announced in February that it was going to buy the 52,000-square-foot creamery located east of downtown at 411 SE Larrance and convert it to a technology park for defense contractors called FISTA (Fires Innovation Science and Technology Accelerator). The renovated plant will be designed to support two of the U.S. Army’s top priorities: long range precision fires, and integrated air and missile defense. Both of those Cross Function Teams (out of eight total) are housed at Fort Sill.
LEDC Board Chairman Ron Nance said Fort Sill and community leaders began talking about plans for the FISTA more than a year ago.
City Council members voted in late February to designate $2.5 million from Capital Improvements Program funding to purchase and renovate the creamery, taking money from a CIP category designated for industrial economic development. Rutherford is to be paid $1.25 million over five years for the 52,000 square foot building and 3.29 acres of surrounding land.
Cooksey said last week that LEDC had completed its structural and environmental reports, and planned to meet with a structural engineer by week’s end.
“The FISTA project is moving along,” he said.
Clarence Fortney, chairman of LEDC’s FISTA committee, outlined the five-year budget that will be funded with the $2.5 million in CIP dollars, including $1.1 million that already has been transferred to LEDC to cover renovation, startup and first-year purchase payment costs.
Fortney said LEDC will pay $250,000 a year for five years as the purchase price of the site. Other expenditures coming out of that initial CIP investment include $790,000 to remodel the building, with another $60,000 dedicated to closing costs. LEDC expects to close on the property by the end of June.
“Our first goal is office space so James (Taylor, FISTA manager) has space to work from, as they continue to do remodels on the rest of the space,” Fortney said, adding that Taylor (now small business management coordinator for Great Plains Technology Center’s Business Development Center) will transition to a temporary office in the building once the sale closes.
The budget also includes $400,000 to cover operating expenses for the FISTA, to include staff salaries and other administrative costs for the next two years. Annual $250,000 payments on the cost of the building will be due on the date LEDC and the City of Lawton signed its agreement.
Fortney said Taylor and other LEDC officials will be working with the area’s congressional delegation to identify federal money, as well as Economic Development Agency grants, that could support the project and the $2.5 million in CIP funding that will be available for the FISTA through Fiscal Year 2024. He said a grant writing subcommittee will be put together “to see what resources might be out there.”
Fortney said his committee has another concern: people entering the building to see what is going on.
“We are observing quite a lot of traffic in the building, people walking into the building,” he said, adding that LEDC will secure the building against trespassers and erect a sign to tell residents the creamery is FISTA’s future home “so people know who is moving in and who is responsible for the building.”
Fortney said work also will continue with defense contractors and the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, to include the state’s new aerospace and defense representative, who already has toured the building and met with Fort Sill officials.
LEDC officials said in February that at least two major defense contractors already had been in Lawton looking at the community and building. Cooksey told the council in late February that at least 14 Department of Defense contractors had expressed an interest in the FISTA.
According to a statement released by LEDC in February, the FISTA’s activities will include defense-related industrial space for research and development, science and technology laboratory rooms, and an initial prototyping integrating facility for system integration and development. Full completion of the project is expected to take 12-18 months. Taylor and Cooksey pointed to the high-tech nature of future occupants, which will translate into jobs that will attract and keep workers in Lawton-Fort Sill, the men said.
The agreement with the City of Lawton specifies 50 jobs will be created within two years, with annual salaries of $100,000. Those 50 jobs will help create 125 “spin off” jobs, to include retail and other service type jobs, Cooksey said.
The Fairmont Creamery, which dates to the city’s earliest days, hasn’t been used as a creamery since the 1970s and was operated by Farm Fresh for a time. Rutherford purchased the building from its then-owners in 2010 with plans to turn the building an arts and entertainment district. While preliminary renovations began, those plans didn’t materialize.