In many organizations, there are some tasks and projects that just don’t seem to fit into an easily defined category. This was also the case for the Corps of Engineers Omaha District in 2009. The District had projects that needed to be completed, but didn’t quite fit the mold of the programs they were assigned to.
The solution to that issue to the stand up the Special Projects Branch. It was a new concept when the first eight-person team was assembled to take on these outliers, which totaled more than $140 million that first year. Since then, the branch has grown to 52 people and nearly $600 million worth of work annually.
The Special Projects Branch assembles project delivery teams to support the nation through homeland security/defense, disaster and infrastructure work within the Omaha District's Area of Responsibility and beyond.
The Special Projects Branch consists of three sections to manage Interagency & International Support/ Rapid Response (IIS); Facilities, Sustainment, Restoration, and Modernization (FSRM); and Fuels.
Customers include Department of Defense and other federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, Department of the Interior, Defense Logistics Agency, Department of Veterans Affairs and others.
Special Projects teams support the Omaha District mission using internal and external resources, including discretionary and/or flexible cost reimbursement contract mechanisms to provide national and international, time-sensitive and non-time-sensitive project support.
Greg Herring, Special Projects Branch Chief, has been with the branch since it was created. He said Special Projects was initially put together to focus on some of the “smaller” projects the District was handling.
“We had a couple of organizations around the Corps of Engineers that were bringing in reimbursable workloads, what we call projects from non-captive customers. They don’t have to come to the Corps of Engineers to get their work done, they just need an engineering service center to get things done. We were bringing in workload from a lot of different areas in the district,” he said. “The Special Projects Branch was created to pick up that type of workload that wasn’t part of other branches’ key business lines; it put the work from all of these agencies in one spot. There was this workload that didn’t have a PM [Project Management] home. They were coming into these other branches and they were managing it.”
Ted Streckfuss, Deputy District Engineer for the Omaha District, said the Special Projects team has taken on the challenge of consolidating those “smaller” projects, but also growing it into a successful branch of the District.
"It has been nearly a decade since Omaha District embarked on a journey dedicated to the vision of workload management and enhanced customer satisfaction. At that time, many within the District had been scratching their head and discussing the challenges related to end-of-year execution, and the availability of staff to accomplish the tasks we had committed to,” he said. “After extensive review, it was determined that the ‘work for others’ aspect of the District's execution need was a significant component of our overarching mission to support the nation.
“We felt that establishing a branch-level organization charged with the responsibility to seamlessly execute our mission to the high standard that Omaha District is known for would be the lynch pin leading us to a more robust, efficient and effective team,” Streckfuss added.
Streckfuss said that team is now meeting and exceeding its original goals.
“Fast forward 10 years, and the Omaha District is the beneficiary of a world-class group of professionals charged with executing ‘special projects’ for a group of stakeholders as big as government,” he said. “Encompassing five business lines, the District's Special Projects Branch has more than 40 management professionals, leveraging technical staff across the entire District, while executing a mission that far exceeds the original expectation of an $80 million per year program—in some years, nearly an order of magnitude greater.”
Herring said the original workload was based on an estimate of about $80 to $150 million in work a year. Now, 10 years later it has grown to the $400 to $500 million range. He went on to explain that much of the work that Special Projects manages is considered smaller projects, but there are a lot of “smaller” projects.
“What generally attracts a lot of attention is the high-dollar stuff. So if the District has a project for a $500 million STRATCOM building, guess what your focus is on,” he said. “It’s not on hundreds of small projects (less than $2 million). For example, in 2018 we executed 595 contract actions and only 42 of them were larger than $2 million.
“We have put together something that has become very successful and supportive of the federal agencies out there that needed a service center that could handle engineering design and construction services that didn’t have a home before,” Herring added. “We’re filling a niche in the Corps of Engineers marketplace that wasn’t being filled prior to setting this branch up. It’s a huge success from that standpoint.”
While the branch has completed thousands of projects, Herring said there are some that stand out. One of them was an early project in Eureka Mills, Utah.
“One big project that we brought into the branch was when we did the superfund remediation on Eureka Mills site. This place had a population of about 750 people, but it had a huge issue with heavy metal and lead contamination so it was put on the EPA superfund site because the children in the town had some sort of metal defect because lead effects brain development,” he explained. “It originally started out as a gold mine boom town in the 1870s, so they had six major mines out there that had been closed but contributed to the contamination. There was no city planning at the time—they just built their homes up around the mines so that’s the way the city was.
“We were asked to come in there to clean it up. The scope was to come in and clean up 500 residential properties and still allow it to look like a historic mining operation,” he added. “It ended up being a $65 million cleanup action that we did in four or five years. It was a huge success that really kicked off a lot of the residential work that we are doing for the EPA now.”
Herring also cited the work done by the Fuels Program as another success for the Special Projects Branch.
“The cornerstone of our office is really the Fuels Program. It’s a huge program that is more or less international where we are doing Sustainability, Repair and Maintenance, technical assistance, design and construction oversight for all of these upgrade and replacement facilities,” he explained. “This has grown from a very small program here in the District, $10-$15 million to $125 million a year program with more than 200 actions a year.”
The work in the branch continues to grow, with projects across the country and for a variety of agencies, according to Herring.
“We’re doing work up in Boulder, Colorado, for the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunication Information Agency by renovating some of their facilities. We just picked up some work with the Department of Agriculture in Madison, Wisconsin, where we are going to be renovating one facility and building two new ones on one of their big research properties—that’s like a $56 million activity,” he said. “We will doing work at the Fort Harrison VA Hospital, which is a historic VA hospital in Montana. We are going to be doing a very large renovation and will be adding on to it.
“Big things are also happening for us at the Air Force Academy too. They have probably a $500 million, possibly 10-year program out there, doing renovations on the historic facilities like the cadet fieldhouse, their gym, and also the dorms and teaching facilities. We have a lot of big projects coming in the door,” he added.
Herring said he is proud of the work done in the Special Projects Branch, and is looking forward to watching it grow more in the coming years.
“If we aren’t doing a good job at it, the work goes away. So we have to continually bring in work and lay out a great plan for our clients, then implement that plan and manage their expectations. That’s really been the key to our successes,” he said.
And those successes are noticed, according to Streckfuss.
“My hat is off to the excellence exhibited by this stellar group—they continue to make the astonishing seem casual, and always operate on a level that is the envy of all who have experienced their excellence first hand."