The Oregon Military Department has spent $2 million on infrastructure upgrades since the U.S. Army signed over 7,500 acres of the former chemical depot for an Oregon National Guard Training Center known as Camp Umatilla.

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PENDLETON, Ore. — The former Umatilla Chemical Depot may not look like much now, but the site manager for Camp Umatilla thinks it can become the Oregon Military Department’s premier training facility.

“We will stand this up to any facility in the state,” said retired Lt. Col. Fritz McReynolds.

The Oregon Military Department has spent $2 million on infrastructure upgrades since the U.S. Army signed over 7,500 acres of the former depot for an Oregon National Guard Training Center known as Camp Umatilla in November (the local Columbia Development Authority is still waiting for the Army to transfer its portion, which will be used for private economic development and a wildlife preserve).

The department plans to spend an additional $25 million in the next three years for remodels, demolitions and new construction. After that, they will build a $39 million infantry training schoolhouse.

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They have their work cut out for them. The chemical weapons may be gone but asbestos, mold, broken pipes and hantavirus-carrying mice plague some of the 1940s-era buildings that have been mothballed for years. It has been a careful process figuring out what can be reused without any health, safety or environmental concerns.

“Some of the buildings we’re looking at preserving, they’re just too far gone,” McReynolds said. “Some buildings were not meant to be here after 50 years. They just weren’t built to that standard.”

Not all the buildings are that way. There are also functional offices, housing facilities, kitchens and other buildings being used by the Oregon National Guard right now. Some historical buildings, such as an old fire station, are currently in use while others, like the former depot headquarters, will be reopened after a remodel.

Preservation and conservation

Inside the old headquarters, known as Building 1, a substantial layer of dust coats old tube televisions, more recent computer monitors and real leather furniture. Staff members are working through the items left behind by the Army in buildings around the installation to figure out what can be repurposed.

“These are beautiful tabletops,” McReynolds said, wiping a clean streak across the dusty green-marbled conference room tables inside Building 1. “We’re definitely going to preserve those.”

The Oregon Military Department plans to create a representative “historical district” inside Camp Umatilla with about 12 buildings preserved with as much historical authenticity as possible. The area also includes touches such as a chunk of concrete from the concrete igloo destroyed in a massive explosion in 1944.

“Those buildings we plan to preserve as is, with some modifications to bring them up to code, and use for Oregon National Guard uses,” said Kris Mitchell, cultural resources specialist for the military department.

Mitchell said they are working in consultation with the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and other groups to come up with guidelines for preservation of as much of the property’s history as possible. There will be opportunities for input from the public as the process moves forward.

There is also an environmental component.

Jeff Mach, natural-resources specialist for the OMD, said the department has been working with Umatilla County and Morrow County on invasive weed abatement and has worked with the tribes to gather seeds they were interested in planting elsewhere.

The OMD also plans to continue the work started by the Army to bring more burrowing owls to the property. The owls nest in holes abandoned by badgers and other burrowing mammals, but fencing around the depot had discouraged such mammals from making their home on the depot. In 2008 the Army began creating artificial burrows for the owls. Since then, Mach said, the burrowing owl population on the depot has gone from four or five nesting pairs to 57.

“From a conservation standpoint that is a really good news story out there and we think it’s one we can continue,” Mach said.

Since November the Oregon Military Department has already spent $2 million in infrastructure upgrades, mostly for the sewer system. Over the next three years another $25 million is expected to go toward more utility upgrades, demolition, remodels, new classrooms and office space. There will also be new roads and fence lines to separate out the department’s property from the portions of the depot slated to be transferred to Umatilla County, Morrow County and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

The fencing will be used to keep civilians from wandering onto areas where soldiers are training, but it will also be to keep soldiers from encroaching on what will soon be private property during their training exercises, which sometimes take place at night over large areas.

Overall, however, the property’s change from a federal military installation to state control should increase the amount of public access to an area that for many years required a background check to visit. Local law enforcement have already been given a tour of the property — something they hadn’t previously been given the opportunity to do — and the National Guard plans to allow some use of shooting ranges by law enforcement in the future. They also plan to sign mutual-aid agreements allowing their firefighters to work closely with other area firefighters.

McReynolds said they are trying to use local contractors and suppliers as much as possible. There will still be armed patrols of the property, but overall less of the “tight security experience” associated with federal control of the property, said OMD chief of planning and programming Stan Hutchison.

“We anticipate the public will have an ability to have much more interaction with this facility than they had under the Army before,” he said.

Roy Swafford, director of installations for the OMD, said Camp Umatilla has potential for a significant impact on the local economy, from hiring more full-time employees and local contractors to purchasing food for hundreds of soldiers coming in for training. He said he couldn’t put a number yet as to how many jobs might be added but there have already been some new hires for maintenance of the property.

Oregon National Guard units and units from other branches of the military will use Camp Umatilla for their weekend and annual training requirements.

“For local units like Milton-Freewater, La Grande, it gives them access to firing ranges that they would otherwise have to go to another facility over on the coast, or in another state,” Swafford said.

The new training center will also be home to the 249th Regional Training Institute, which a news release called “the Oregon National Guard’s premier training institute for forging exceptional leaders, and … a leader in the nation for conducting infantry transition and advanced infantry leader training.”

There will be new barracks for more than 320 soldiers, new classrooms and training grounds such as an obstacle course and mock city.

As the grander plans are still coming together at Camp Umatilla, site manager McReynolds said sometimes it’s the small things that make him happy. While the Oregon Military Department was a guest of the U.S. Army’s Base Realignment and Closure office the OMD was barred from even small improvements like running a street sweeper over the parking lots or using an edger to cut grass away from the sidewalks. McReynolds proudly showed off the neatly edged sidewalks and clean roads.

“It’s looking a lot nicer out here already,” he said.