The Army is looking for a place to design its future, and Greater Boston is on the short list.
Army officials were in town this week to scout potential sites for a Futures Command headquarters in Boston’s Seaport district and elsewhere around the region. The facility would house about 500 military and civilian employees and be the home base for an effort to modernize the largest branch of the US military.
It could also draw contractors and other companies to locate nearby.
Boston is one of a handful of finalists for the headquarters, which the Army hopes to launch by year’s end. Others include Raleigh, N.C., and Austin, Texas, both of which the Army site selection team also reportedly visited this month. The visits were first reported by Bloomberg.
A spokesman for the project said Army officials will go to other cities, as well, but wouldn’t say where. A decision is expected by the end of the month.
The Army is looking to establish a relatively small urban facility, close to research universities and technology companies so it can tap engineers and experts immersed in everything from robotics to artificial intelligence to cybersecurity.
“The main criteria,” wrote the Army News Service in April, “is to find an unbeatable center of innovation.” It also envisions a facility where interaction and collaboration with the outside world is easier than at a highly secured military base.
“This command is going to be different,” said Colonel Patrick Seiber, a spokesman for the Futures Command Task Force. “It’s not going to be like the Pentagon. There will be secure aspects to it, but there has to be a way — when you want to meet with professors and business leaders — that they’re not accosted by security when they walk through the door.”
A desire for that open and innovative environment has drawn a slew of tech companies to Boston in recent years, including General Electric, which moved its headquarters from a suburban campus in Fairfield, Conn., to Fort Point to tap Boston’s brainy workforce. That’s also a key reason why the city is in the hunt for Amazon’s so-called second headquarters. Indeed, of 15 cities the Army identified as potential sites for the Futures Command, 10 are finalists for Amazon’s “HQ2.”
The scale of the Army project is much smaller, but like Amazon’s, it would be the type of facility that could draw suppliers and other companies that want to locate near the headquarters, while potentially spinning off new firms from research that’s generated there, said John Barros, chief of economic development for Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
“There are all sorts of good impacts, direct and indirect economic growth, that could happen should the Army choose to locate this here,” Barros said.
Walsh, Governor Charlie Baker and US Senator Elizabeth Warren, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, met Monday with an Army site-selection team that was here on a two-day visit. Representatives of all three officials declined to discuss specifics of the meeting, citing the ongoing search.
One potential site is nine acres the Army owns in the Seaport along Summer Street, including the 620,000-square-foot Barnes Building at the corner of D Street, said people familiar with the search. The site team visited other buildings around the city, as well as sites near Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, where MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory and a variety of defense contractors and research companies are located.
The Army has long had a research campus in Natick, and it has expanded research and development facilities in the Boston area more recently, launching an innovation unit in Kendall Square to tap startups in 2016 and choosing Northeastern University’s Burlington campus for a new research lab just this April.
Letters to Army brass from the state’s US House delegation and from 11 of New England’s 12 senators cited those assets, and the region’s universities and vibrant tech economy, as reasons the Army should choose Boston for the Futures Command. Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont did not sign the letter.
“We are confident that Boston can meet the Army’s requirements, and we believe that placing the Futures Command in New England will show the world that the Army is serious about innovation and doing business in a new way,” the senators wrote.
The regionwide united front could give Boston a boost in a process that’s likely to play out, at least in part, on Capitol Hill. Influential lawmakers from North Carolina, Texas, and California have also campaigned for their states.
Seiber said the Army’s search team is focusing on measurable data: quality of life, cost of living, workforce, and education.
“Whatever the decision is, it will be politically sensitive,” Seiber said. “So we’re really trying to base this on data, and having that data lead us to a decision.”Tim Logan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.