If it weren’t for local support, Lawton’s dedicated work complex for military defense contractors wouldn’t exist.
The FISTA Innovation Park was formally dedicated last week, and during the ceremony speakers were pretty much unanimous in their praise of the local efforts that made the FIRES Innovation Science and Technology Accelerator a reality — from the idea pushed by local businessmen Mike Brown and Nate Slate, to the initial funding source that got the complex off the ground. While tenants have been setting up in FISTA 1 for months, Thursday was the first and probably last chance the general public had to see some of the security-level space that contractors will use.
Brown said it’s only been five years since he talked to U.S. Fourth District Congressman Tom Cole about “this thing.” Mayor Stan Booker said it’s only been a little over two years since the City of Lawton used its Capital Improvements Program to buy Central Mall/Plaza, after establishing the FISTA Development Trust Authority to guide the process that is converting empty retail space into work and meeting space for defense contractors.
Booker and others also pointed out the obvious economic impact stretches beyond today’s adults getting good-paying jobs. FISTA also comes with a STEM component that will give city youths real world applications for science, math, technology and engineering, something Gov. Kevin Stitt called a generational impact.
FISTA members have been clear since the beginning that Cole and former U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe were strong drivers in FISTA’s success, bringing the complex to national attention and securing funding for its development and expansion.
U.S. Sen. Markwayne Mullin, who replaced Inhofe in Washington, D.C., and also serves as a member of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, said the first question he was asked by Committee Chair Jack Reed was about the FISTA. He said the committee’s highest ranking members have said they must make a trip to Lawton to see the FISTA and learn how they could replicate it.
“That’s a point of pride,” Mullin said of the fact that Lawton and Oklahoma already have a reputation in Washington, adding he also will make a point of keeping up with FISTA. “You’ll be seeing me a lot.”
Cole, cited by locals as a strong supporter of FISTA since the beginning, said the complex wouldn’t exist except for local initiative, adding Lawton parted ways from the typical process of initiating change from the top down. He said Washington wasn’t the director; rather, FISTA was “an initiative that came from here,” to the point that initial resources came from Lawton.
“I’m proud of the community,” Cole said. “The stakes here are pretty enormous.”
FISTA Development Trust Authority Chairman Clarence Fortney said the area’s congressional delegation and state officials were important to the process. While initial funding came from the City of Lawton, state leaders have ensured Lawton will receive $20 million from Oklahoma’s share of American Rescue Plan Act funding for further development, to include construction of an anechoic chamber complex. And Cole helped ensure $1 million in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funding.
Fortney and others have said development won’t stop with FISTA 1. Plans already are in place to complete renovations of the 100,000 square feet of space available in the former Sears complex, as well as the 94,000 square feet available in the former Dillard’s, as well as other interior space within the mall and potential space outside. Local officials have said they expect the need for space at FISTA to grow, as Fort Sill’s training missions continue to expand and evolve, and more defense contractors come to the community.
U.S. Sen. James Lankford cited the importance of FISTA to the Army, which in turn is crucial to the nation’s security. Lankford said those using Patriot missiles in defensive initiatives, to include members of the Ukrainian Army,”were trained right here,” and that the most requested hardware in the Army “comes out of Fort Sill.” Booms from artillery training exercises on Fort Sill made that point, punctuating large portions of Thursday’s ceremony.
Lankford said Fort Sill — and by extension FISTA — remains important because it trains the personnel who defend the U.S. Other countries are “living in our shadow,” as far as enjoying the benefits of freedom.
“No pressure. We’re counting on you,” Lankford said.