RICHMOND — What can Blue do for you?
That variation of the UPS advertising slogan might describe Blue Grass Army Depot's desire to market itself to defense contractors and non-defense manufacturers as a place to do business.
"We're aggressively seeking to create business opportunities," said Col. Brian L. Rogers, commanding officer of the depot.
The Madison County installation is best known for its 523-ton stockpile of chemical weapons, which are scheduled for destruction once a pilot plant now under construction is up and running. Under the current time line, those weapons will be destroyed from 2018 to 2021.
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But federal law allows the depot to engage in "public-private partnerships" in which its work force may be used to make things or perform services for private industry or the government. The depot is seeking to develop such partnerships, said Mark Henry, the depot's marketing specialist.
For example, a defense contractor might use depot employees to perform part of a government contract, such as producing metal add-on components for a weapon.
"It may be more cost-effective for (the defense contractor) to come here to us, and basically be project managers, and use our expertise, our employees and our facilities to actually do the work," Henry said. "That way, they don't have to invest in infrastructure and hiring more people, and we essentially can become subcontractors to defense contractors."
The depot offers two helipads, a rail spur to the CSX main line, easy access to Interstate 75 and a secure location — amenities that might be of interest to prospective contractors.
Marketing their industrial capabilities is a growing segment for the seven Army depots in the United States. Anniston Army Depot in Alabama estimates it has generated $1 billion since the mid-1990s through partnerships with dozens of contractors, including General Dynamics, Honeywell and Raytheon.
Blue Grass Army Depot hasn't done that kind of business, but it has increased its industrial capabilities during the past 2½ years. Each month it makes about 10,000 aluminum fin housing assemblies for 81mm mortars. Welding, painting, machining and the robotic handling of material are only a few of the available services.
Since 1941, the depot's primary mission has been to receive, store, issue and maintain conventional ammunition. So partnerships with contractors that deal with ammunition and ammo components would "make a perfect fit for us," Henry said.
However, it's conceivable that non-defense contractors might want to use the depot's metal expertise in the manufacture of some household component. The depot has four 5,000-watt laser cutters and eight water-jet cutters. The latter is a tool capable of slicing into metal using a jet of water at high velocity and pressure.
"We have some pretty high-tech capability and capacity for cutting steel up to an inch thick and aluminum up to 1½ inches thick, so we can produce and cut a lot of different parts," Henry said.
"But most of our focus is on trying to target those defense-related contractors that have similarities to what we do," he said.
The depot is already a significant Central Kentucky employer. It has 1,041 employees, plus 610 who work at the pilot plant and 350 in a tenant work force who occupy buildings leased from the depot. The average annual wage at the depot is $44,376, according to a 2008 analysis. That's higher than the annual average wage of $39,665 in Fayette County.
Only Scott County, at $45,929, has a higher average annual wage in the counties surrounding Fayette.
Growing its industrial services is part of the depot's desire to be "relevant, diverse and unique," Rogers said.
Like the other six depots in the Joint Munitions Command, Blue Grass Army Depot is a "working capital fund organization."
That means "we do not get our money from Congress. We earn our money," Rogers explained. "So we're actually a business. We sell our goods and services back to the Department of Defense organizations."
"This is a $140 million-a-year business because we built it and maintain it, not because it's appropriated money to keep it afloat. The benefit of that is it makes us very competitive, and we use best business practices to remain relevant, which is good for the taxpayers, and it maintains a certain standard of quality for our customers."
Workload ups and downs
Like most depots and other government installations, Blue Grass is subject to surges.
"In others words, during Iraq and the buildup to Afghanistan, we have plenty of workload," Henry said. "But as conflicts come and go, the workload at these kinds of installations comes and goes."
Diversifying the depot's workload will make it less subject to those ups and downs. In addition, it will ensure that the depot remains relevant long after the last rocket and projectile have been destroyed.
"We want to be ... a significant economic partner in the Bluegrass region," Rogers said. "If we're going to do that, we've got to plan."
The depot already aims to build a new production facility, and it has partnered with Eastern Kentucky University's engineering and economic departments to design that building.
The building won't go up for some years, "but we need to get some of that design work done to provide the basic framework of what the facility would look like," said Lt. Col. Steven Young, chief of the depot's Special Initiatives Group.
The building will consolidate space for industrial services now located in multiple buildings that were erected in the 1940s or '50s. Two large buildings now used for industrial services originally were used for the repair of railroad locomotive engines.
"It's another one of those community win-win things," Henry said of the EKU partnership. "They have students working on a real-world project, so to speak, and it helps expand their class curriculum. And at the same time, we may get some work done that will save us some cost down the road."