The military reservation is one of the county's top employers, contributing millions to the local economy, but few locals know much about it.

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YAKIMA — Steve Switzer, a Yakima native, came home after 20 years in the Coast Guard.

He wanted to continue his career as an electrician while maintaining a connection to the military.

Switzer found both opportunities at the Yakima Training Center, where he’s now part of the public works crew.

“What I do is a small part of the big picture, but everybody’s got to do their share for those guys that are going over to the sandbox,” Switzer said.

He’s one of about 550 civilian and military employees who work full time at the Yakima Training Center, making it one of the county’s top 10 employers.

This is the same military reservation that once hosted Norman Schwarzkopf, then a lieutenant general, before his prowess during the first Gulf War made him a household name. Schwarzkopf in 1986 took command of I Corps at Fort Lewis, of which the training center is a part.

Thousands of soldiers from U.S. and international forces have trained on the ranges and slept in the sagebrush before and after that time.

But despite the center’s importance to the military and the local economy, few residents here know much about the place.

“I think we are kind of a secret,” said Lt. Col. Leo Pullar, the base commander.

Every day, hundreds of employees roll through the gates at the Yakima Training Center. Millions of dollars of payroll leave with them as they return to their homes and neighborhood stores.

Together with contracts and other expenses, the training center contributes an estimated $35 million per year to the local economy.

“I think there’s a big impact, and I think it’s underestimated,” said Pullar, who has less than a year left on his three-year assignment here.

Mayor Bob Jones of Selah said the training center is a great neighbor to the city.

The center occasionally lends heavy machinery or other equipment to the city, and the city’s police officers would be the first to provide backup for any major incident at the center, Jones said.

“That very rarely ever happens, but it’s nice to know they’re there,” Jones said.

Mechanics and other center employees can be spotted eating at local restaurants on their lunch break, and a new hotel proposed for Selah may benefit from military visitors.

Pullar recently was one of the featured speakers when the city of Selah dedicated the newly built Veterans Park on Naches Avenue. The park features six flags — the American flag and one for each of the military branches.

“For us, it’s a big thank you to those folks,” Jones said.

Every year, thousands of soldiers and other members of the armed forces arrive for days or weeks of training. They come from as close as Fort Lewis and as far away as Japan.

Evolution of a center

Long before soldiers roamed this land, it was part of the traditional territory of the tribes now known as the Yakama Nation. The farming hamlet of Paradise Valley sat somewhere in the middle of the current military acreage. By the 1920s, it was gone.

The training center’s history dates back to World War II. In 1942, the Army first leased 160,000 acres of rangeland northeast of Selah for the Yakima Anti-Aircraft Artillery Range. That property was given back to the owners in 1946.

The Army returned in 1951, purchasing 261,000 acres that was known as the Yakima Firing Center. The center’s missions varied, from reserve training to testing of field artillery.

A few large-scale exercises were held in the 1950s and ’60s, including some that required temporary use of land outside the center’s boundaries.

Twenty years later, the Army again felt the need to grow. The somewhat-controversial process stretched on for more than five years. In 1992, the center took over 62,000 acres to the north.

That brought the total complex to 327,000 acres, or roughly 511 square miles.

The Army operates two national training centers — Fort Irwin, Calif., and Fort Polk, La. — that are designed to allow forces to train against a practice enemy in combat scenarios.

The Yakima center differs in that its open space offers commanders more freedom to plot exercises as they want, said Jim Reddick, a 24-year employee of the training center who now serves as its civilian executive officer.

The center has supported maneuvers involving more than 15,000 personnel.

The National Guard can routinely bring in 5,000. The center is averaging about 2,200 soldiers a day right now, with fixed barracks for 2,500.

Reddick said center officials are responsible for two key areas: supporting training and caring for the land on which it takes place.

Because the center has no post housing, the 550 employees who report to the training center live in the Yakima Valley — Selah, Yakima and Naches among the leading spots.

They are responsible for a range of duties — from maintenance to security, computer support to natural resources, law enforcement to firefighting.

Two full-time military units are assigned here: the 53rd Ordnance Company, a bomb disposal unit; and Army Air Ambulance Detachment.

The fire department, which contracts for a water-dropping helicopter during the summer, responded to most of the 256 fires this year. Small fires often get knocked down by assigned fire crews within the units that are training on the ranges.

The fire department also responds across the county to help local departments when they need manpower.

The medevac helicopter used to fly severely injured hikers and other patients to medical care, but that program has been greatly restricted because of the training demands during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The personnel count has increased by about 150 since 1997, about half due to growth and half due to the addition of the ambulance company and ordnance detachment.

Reddick estimated that $20 million per year goes to wages, with another $12 million to contractors.

“It’s out of sight and mind, but the impacts from the training center really do ripple through our regional economy — pretty significant,” said Dave McFadden, director of New Vision, the Yakima County economic-development agency.

Reddick said he expects a potential for future growth in personnel, though the scope of that hasn’t been determined. The acreage is likely to stay the same.

The center once expected a slowdown between Thanksgiving and February, but that window has been shrinking to between Christmas and New Year’s.

“Right now, we seem to be having customers year-round,” Reddick said.

Although some of that increase can be tied to predeployment training for troops headed to Iraq, growth at Fort Lewis has more to do with it.

Fort Lewis is expected to top out at more than 34,000 troops over the next couple of years — up from 18,000 — as the Army cuts its number of bases across the country.

Within the next year, the Army Corps of Engineers will oversee two major projects at the training center — a $26 million contract to replace and expand the current Pendleton Hall, the armed forces reserve center; and another $29 million to upgrade the multipurpose range complex.

The training center remains appealing for Fort Lewis because current and future weapons systems — including the Stryker vehicles — need to be used at a distance. The center’s terrain also closely resembles that of the Middle East, especially Afghanistan.

“I think the training center has a huge unrealized potential for the Army,” Reddick said.