In the mid-1990s – before 9/11 and the armed forces expansion that accompanied the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – military bases were under pressure to cut costs. On-base stores that provided everything from office supplies to cleaning products for thousands of military personnel became prime targets. Once the stores closed, personnel began using newly issued impact credit cards to buy supplies at large retailers, but not without complaint.
“We heard rumors that people were unhappy,” recalled Bill Hudson, former president and CEO of NIB associated nonprofit agency LCI. “People were spending a lot of time off-base,” he explained, “taking military vehicles downtown, which is obviously very dangerous.”
LCI had a longstanding relationship with the U.S. Army installation at Fort Bragg, outside Fayetteville, North Carolina, for whom it manufactured mattresses, among other products. The agency offered to operate the on-base supply store – a wooden, World War II-era building – and staff it heavily with people who are blind.
“I just knew this was a winner,” said Hudson, who explained that over the years, LCI invested more than a million dollars in building its program “I knew it was going to be successful.”
On October 11, 1995, when the first AbilityOne Base Supply Center® (BSC) opened at Fort Bragg, success was not assured. Skeptical military brass gave LCI a 6-month contract to see if the idea could work. LCI, meanwhile, invested $250,000 to renovate that first building.
The idea didn’t take long to catch on. After just three months of operation, the Army awarded LCI a long-term contract for the Fort Bragg store.
“Word started circulating very rapidly,” Hudson said, “and we started getting phone calls from bases all over the country.”
LCI began operating BSCs at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina, and at Fort Drum, in upstate New York. After that, NIB began opening BSCs at military bases and government centers throughout the country.
Twenty-five years later, there are 155 BSCs serving all branches of the armed forces – Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard – as well as the Defense Logistics Agency. Elsewhere in the federal government, BSCs serve the Census Bureau, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Justice, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs.
“Retail is the place where many people get their first real employment experience, learn how to maintain a schedule, follow instructions in a work environment, and develop various skills,” says NIB BSC Program Director Luis Lebron. “Traditionally, these experiences have not been available to people who are blind or visually impaired, but the BSC program changed that.”
Happy Anniversary AbilityOne BSC Program! Visit this page next week for a look at some of the employees whose lives have been changed by the BSC program.