PERRY -- All across a vast plot of red clay in Perry, Geoff Burkart’s audacious vision is rapidly becoming a reality.
Less than three months after construction started, the mock city that will serve as a training center for emergency personnel is already taking form. Burkart, the founder and chief executive officer of Guardian Centers of Georgia, says there isn’t another facility to match it anywhere in the world.
Up to 7,000 people at a time could be training there. If it succeeds, it could give Perry its biggest economic punch since the Georgia National Fairgrounds & Agricenter opened in 1990.
It will include a floodable replica of New Orleans’ 9th Ward, two city blocks of demolished buildings with moving parts, and a mock up of a subway with real subway cars to replicate the Madrid terrorist attack in 2004.
A little more than a year ago, the project was about to fade into oblivion when one phone call saved it.
Sitting on a couch in the Guardian Centers lobby Tuesday, Burkart told the unlikely story of how the project came to be.
He started out his working career as a regular wrench-turning aircraft mechanic. He got a job maintaining planes for South Central Bell Telephone Co., later to be acquired by BellSouth. He steadily rose through supervisory positions until he was director of flight operations.
When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, he spent more than three months in the disaster area directing the company’s aircraft in a massive supply effort that ran around the clock for weeks. It worked so well, he said, that not only did they supply BellSouth personnel restoring communications, but they also delivered relief supplies for the government.
While working in the disaster area was difficult and challenging, he said, he also found it to be the most gratifying thing he had ever done.
“Once you go out and make that kind of difference, you don’t want to stop making a difference,” he said. “My heart wasn’t in working in a corporate flight department any more. My heart was in finding some way to make a difference.”
Katrina experience plants training center idea
Through his Katrina experience, the idea behind Guardian Centers slowly began to form.
What he saw during the relief effort was that the nation had the will and the capacity to help, but somehow the execution was lacking. He didn’t immediately think of a massive training facility, but he knew he wanted to do something to correct “a gap” he saw during Katrina.
The more he talked to people who worked in emergency response, the more he began to see a need for better training. In 2007, he told a friend he described as his business mentor about his idea to develop a huge center that would bring civilian and military personnel together to practice disaster response.
“He said, ‘I think you have lost your mind, but if you are committed to doing it, I will give you some advice and coaching,’ ” Burkart recalled. “Here we are today, and he is still my mentor.”
Burkart left his job in 2008 and formed an advisory board made up of people who had something he did not, which is experience in emergency management. He exhaustively researched the field and developed various plans for the center before settling on the one under construction today.
He said he “spent a fortune” traveling around the country speaking with military and civilian personnel about what they needed in a training facility.
In an almost unbelievable exercise of optimism, he then spent 18 months making presentations to investment groups around the country, asking them to give $50 million to a man who had never run a business in his life and had no experience in the field in which he wanted to train people, for a business that was unlike anything anyone had ever tried.
From each one, he got basically the same response. They liked the idea, thought it had potential, and were impressed with the homework he had done, but they just didn’t want to take that kind of risk with a man they called “an untested resource.”
“That was true,” he added.
In March 2011, he had nearly exhausted his life savings exploring the idea.
“I had just enough money to keep the sheriff’s department from putting my couch on the street,” he said.
Phone call puts project on track
He was about at the point of giving up and returning to work in aviation when he got a phone call. He can instantly recite the exact date and time: March 22, 2011 at 2:52 p.m.
Earlier, a Denver investment company had heard about the project and asked him to send a data package, which he did. The phone call was from them, the Anschutz Corp. They said they were at least willing to give the money to do a full engineering study of his plans to validate the projected cost. They also wanted time to research the potential demand.
By November, the engineering plans were done and the group agreed to put up the money for construction. Duane Ackerman, former BellSouth CEO, also joined as an investor.
“They said, ‘We see the merit in the project. Number one, this is good for the country. Number two, we think it’s badly needed, and number three, we think, we hope, you can make a business out of it,’ ” Burkart recalled. “That has been repeated at every board meeting since.”
Construction is expected to be finished in early 2013, but it is already well ahead of schedule. When it is built, Burkart and his investors will then be faced with the ultimate question. Will people come?
Not only is he convinced they will, but he believes the need is strong enough that he plans to build three more centers in other parts of the country. He said he has talked to many federal, state and local emergency agencies, not only around the country but internationally.
“I have yet to find one agency or one individual, either a leadership person or a grunt in the ranks, who thinks this is a bad idea,” he said. “They think not only is this a great idea but ‘Man, do we need this.’ Nowhere does a comprehensive, all-hazards training facility exist.”
Perry Mayor Jimmy Faircloth said he has heard Burkart give several presentations on the project, and Faircloth is convinced it will be a success.
“It is going to be very similar to the impact that the national fair has,” he said. “The people coming to Guardian Centers will infiltrate into the community moreso than the people coming to the fair because they will be here for days, staying in hotels and eating at restaurants.”
Local economic developers have estimated an annual economic impact of at least $75 million.
The center is being built on the property that had been the Northrop Grumman Corp. missile plant, although the government canceled the contract before a missile was ever built. Vacant for years, it was Burkart’s top choice for a location and was purchased shortly after the investment funding came through. Construction started in February.
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.