For nearly four decades, Blashfield Sign Company has been leaving its mark at Fort Bragg, erecting most of the iconic signage seen in and around the military installation.
So when the U.S. Dept. of Defense officially changed the name on June 2, it’s little surprise that owner Matt Blashfield and his Fayetteville team were called upon again as the vendor of choice for the first phase of a longer-term project: replacing 15 major “Fort Bragg” access point signs with new ones reflecting the change to “Fort Liberty.”
What was a surprise, though, was how little time they had to do the job.
Today, Blashfield Sign, established in 1986 and located at 303 Williams St., has a staff of 11. Blashfield and his team members have backgrounds in graphic design, advertising, woodworking, welding and fabrication. And they all have close military ties.
“I’m an Army brat,” says Blashfield, 61, whose father, part of the U.S. Army’s Special Forces, served in Fort Bragg — then relocated here after retiring in California and falling ill. “This was the center of the universe for him.”
For his team, too.
“All of the employees who work here either have active duty husbands or wives or are Army brats themselves,” he said.
That made them personally connected to the Fort Liberty sign project. But there’s other history, too. In addition to extensive work Blashfield has done for the U.S. Army and other branches of the military, the company’s clients include city and state governments, real estate companies, medical, retail and more, including a number located overseas.
The Fort Liberty job, though, was unique: it came with essentially turnkey responsibilities. Do the sign drawings, create the plans and specs, and do all the fabricating for the signs, and then make the installation happen. But it was also accompanied by a litany of the peculiarities that come with government work — such as an eight-page design guide expanding to more than 1,000 pages after making its way through channels in Washington, D.C. — and a delayed start that necessitated a compressed work timeline.
It was a five-month project.
Blashfield’s team’s deadline was just seven weeks.
“And we finished early,” he said.
‘The mission does not change’
Fort Bragg’s original namesake was Braxton Bragg, a Confederate general who served during the Civil War. After the 2020 murder of George Floyd, and subsequent nationwide protests, a broad military initiative was launched to rename installations, which coincided with a movement that saw the removal of Confederate monuments in many public spaces. Eventually, Bragg was out, Fort Liberty was in, and this past June one of the world’s largest military installations became the only one not named for a person. The name change required the new signage (a drive near or through Fort Liberty shows that another phase of that sign work remains to be done) and came with a price tag estimated at $8 million.
“The name changes,” base spokesperson Cheryle Rivas was quoted saying when Blashfield Sign’s work was being unveiled, “but the mission does not change.”
It’s something that would have sounded natural coming from Blashfield’s own lips. He sees the work he and his team do as a serious mission, and this one was significant and literally a heavy lift: most of the signs in this job were more than 20 feet wide and weighed around 1,500 pounds, with steel inner frames, timber support poles, lots of concrete and government-specced rivets.
Blashfield Sign Company got the work after being engaged by Hope Mills-based project contractor SouthEastern General Contractors, which was chosen to lead the project. SouthEastern had previously partnered on projects with Blashfield Sign. Owner Ralphael Locklear was familiar with Blashfield and his team’s work processes, and after getting awarded the project and “looking out across the landscape” at other potential sign companies, he engaged Blashfield because he knew what he’d get.
Commitment to the job at hand.
“We already knew that they knew how to step up the pace when it was time to step up the pace,” Locklear said. “They knew how to follow our process.”
The project’s high-profile nature, and obvious high visibility, required the expertise of someone who knew the ropes. It was a choice Locklear knew he wouldn’t regret.
“They (Blashfield’s team) showed up when they said they were going to show up; if we needed them to stay late, they stayed late,” he said. “They were always able to be reached. We were anticipating some hiccups, and we built in some contingencies, but those guys work just like we work.”
‘A huge amount of overwhelming stress’
The hiccups, though, were real. The project’s tight deadline — which became even 30 days tighter after SouthEastern was given the contract — presented not just challenges, but real problems: the finding and timely delivery of materials among them. That, plus the complex fabrication and installation processes, necessitated a near-constant review of every aspect of Blashfield Sign’s work plan. It put additional pressure on everyone inside Blashfield’s shop.
“It was just a huge amount of overwhelming stress,” Blashfield said.
He knew from experience to factor in time for potential material shortages, trucking delays and the like when he took on the job. But under a new compressed timeline, he said he and his team “had absolutely zero minutes” for something like a mistake or a do-over.
When it comes to signs, Blashfield says that generally, decision-makers who end up calling his company put too little thought into that part of the process.
“Everybody goes, ‘Oh, we need some signs. Where are we going to put the sign? I haven’t even thought about that.’
“So they call me and I say, ‘OK, when do you need this?’” Blashfield said. “And they say, ‘Well, we opened last week.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Holy crap, this is a 30-, 45-day project!’ And they always say, ‘Can you do it quicker? Can I pay you more money to do it faster?’”
So he was used to having to do work quickly — just not as much at this scale as for the Fort Liberty project, given the media attention, the high-level military involvement and the visibility.
It could go really well, he thought.
“Or it could go horrible,” he said. “So we just, you know, we did what we do.”
Blashfield calls himself “a warrior by heart, and by nature,” and he worried throughout the project. In the end, though, he said it was unnecessary.
“Because everybody just did what they do here,” he said. “And that just made me extremely proud, and reassured me how wonderful everybody is here. In the end, it was a great experience.”
Working ‘twice as fast’
“A job this scale would typically take twice as long, so that meant I had to get the art done twice as fast,” said Karen Moody, graphic design supervisor at Blashfield. “And since the signs in this package would be the new foundation of the signs going up at Fort Liberty, there were many revisions before we deemed it suitable to send to the customer.”
That was just on the front end. On the back end, installation crew member Gabe Wright said the time allocated for his work was also “cut almost in half” — adding in additional stress.
“But that made it much more rewarding when we were able to accomplish it ahead of schedule,” he said.
Terry Slack, the company’s vice president, said his team simply willed the enormous tasks to completion.
“I’m really proud of how everyone on our team knew we were getting the short end of the stick with regard to time and expectations and everyone buckled down and didn’t let that affect anything from putting out the best possible product that we were capable of,” he said. “Our team takes a lot of pride in what we produce, and it really showed on this job.”
Locklear’s trust in Blashfield Sign resulted in a successful installation and job completion for both companies. Even though the signs were a hit, and the quality of the work lauded, there wasn’t much fanfare for the company when the signs were unveiled.
Slack says that’s not why they do the work.
“We have had a heavy workload with the military and Fort Liberty for 30-plus years, and it’s awesome that the folks there know they can trust us to provide a great solution at a fair price,” he said. “It’s nice to know the standard we have set for this name change, and what it takes to get it done. Any work we continue to get will get tackled with the same enthusiasm and high quality of work.”
And despite the controversy of the change from Fort Bragg to Fort Liberty, Blashfield’s Jan Wright said she and her co-workers are proud they had the opportunity to play a role — and of the fact the signs will be on display for many years to come.
“I love the fact that we are called upon so often to provide unique sign products for the units on base — from memorial plaques to unit crests,” said Wright, whose role in the project included sourcing raw and composite materials for the signs, as well as scheduling work with auger, crane and concrete companies, which assisted them in the project. “I support our military personally, and it’s great that I get to be a part of supporting them professionally as well.”
Locklear, who started SouthEastern in 2004, said he’s not sure other vendors would have handled the project with the same temperament.
“Man, he’s got an awesome team over there,” Locklear said of Blashfield. “That wasn't an easy feat. There was high stress, high pressure after signing on that dotted line. I was thinking, ‘We're not meeting this deadline.’ A lot of people can't work underneath those types of commitments and a lot of people won't make those types of commitments, but he and his team did.
“And everything he said he was going to do, when he said he was going to do it,” he added. “He did it and he communicated when something needed to shift to the left or shift to the right, and he let us know upfront so we can communicate to the back channels with the government.”
Now Locklear, and by extension, Blashfield, wait to hear about the other phases of work involved in the renaming. Locklear says “in theory” SouthEastern and Blashfield Sign should be in line to get the first call.
“Because we're already familiar, we're already proven, we already know the color schemes, the fonts,” he said.
And Locklear — as well as the rest of Fort Liberty — know well what Blashfield and his team can do. Three decades of history there, and another job completed, provide the evidence.
“They’re no-nonsense,” Locklear said. “When they come, it’s all hands on deck. Working with them was just a great experience.”
“You know,” Blashfield reflects, “at the time, it seemed like, ‘Oh my gosh, how are we going to do this in such a short amount of time?’ But we just did it. I don’t know any other way to describe it.”
Contact Bill Horner III at firstname.lastname@example.org.