FORT MEADE, Md. — Talk of severe budget cuts threatening the entire U.S. military complex did not keep Army officials from breaking ground Wednesday on a 432-unit apartment complex at Fort Meade, Md.
A ceremonial shovel scoop capped a morning of praise for a $72 million project that won’t cost the Army a dime in construction costs. The added bonus, officials said, is the significant quality-of-life boost that unaccompanied junior enlisted personnel will derive from the apartment units to be built by Picerne Military Housing.
Katherine Hammack, assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment, noted that it’s the Army’s first attempt to have a privately-developed, garden-style community apartment complex built on an Army installation exclusively for junior enlisted personnel.
The quality of the furnished apartments – with spacious master suites, walk-in closets, individual bathrooms, individual climate controls, storage closets, full kitchens, a common living area, a full laundry room with washer and dryer – will be far superior to a typical Army barracks room. The apartment complex, which will be within walking distance of the installations major amenities, will also come with a community pool, a clubhouse, a workout room, a game room, basketball and volleyball courts, covered pavilions and bar-b-cue areas
The Fort Meade project, known as Reece Crossings, could be a prototype of what Army junior enlisted housing will look like in the future, said Hammack. “We’re going to take a look at it, see how it works and then evaluate where it would add future benefit to the Army on other posts.”
A dire shortage of barracks at Fort Meade is one of the main factors behind the push for the Reece Crossings project. That shortage has forced more than 1,300 unaccompanied servicemembers, from all branches of the military who are assigned to the post, to seek off-base housing, according to Col. Edward Rothstein, the garrison commander.
“We’ve got to do something about that,” said Rothstein, who acknowledged the difficulties in finding a solution. “The reality is we’re in a fiscally challenging time. We know that… we’re impacted every day. It’s going to get more difficult.” But, he added, “it’s about taking care of the community, and we’ve got to be innovative.”
Limited funding is another prime factor that has forced the Army to reconsider how it has traditionally housed its lower-ranking single and unaccompanied enlisted members.
“One of the things we can’t afford to do is build more barracks,” said Hammack. Recent budget cuts and the additional ones proposed by sequestration have had and will continue to have a “devastating” impact on military installations worldwide, she said. And they stand to put quality-of-life programs and basic amenities for servicemembers in “serious jeopardy.”
So, instead of digging into a shrinking military construction budget, Army officials sought a private partner to foot the bill for Reece Crossings. And even if budget cuts from sequestration go through, Hammack said the project would not be affected, because it is not financed by nor staffed by the military or federal government.
“This is an entirely private venture… and it’s at his risk,” Hammack said nodding her head at John Picerne, the chief executive officer of Corvias Group, the parent company of Picerne Military Housing.
Undaunted by the scope of the project, Picerne said he has done his “homework,” and he believes the Reece Crossings project is not only a “safe investment” for his company, but also the right thing to do for Fort Meade’s junior enlisted community.
“This is a small installation with a lot of commands, a lot of growth and no place to put junior enlisted” personnel said Picerne. The outcome, he noted has been an exodus off the post with base-area housing allowances that don’t go far in an increasingly competitive housing market around the base.
As various cyber-security agencies have consolidated at Fort Meade in recent years bringing many high-paying jobs to the region, growing demand for housing near the base has sent local real estate costs skyrocketing, said Picerne.
The BAH checks of the junior enlisted “don’t compare to those of the senior ranks or of the married families,” said Picerne. “But they’re competing for the same product, the same homes. So they unfortunately find themselves moving further and further away.” So, Picerne noted, those who have the greatest need for social connectivity and to be more closely connected to their jobs are being dispersed farther afield, with very long commutes on congested roads.
Army Spc. Nycholas Hayden, who lives in a Fort Meade barracks facility, said living close to where he works is very important to him. “Think about what a soldier does every day. You wake up, and at 5:30 in the morning, you go to PT. Then you have an hour and a half to get ready before you have to be at work. Living closer to work … your level of efficiency just goes up.”
Hayden said he considers himself fortunate in that he has one of the larger style barracks rooms that Fort Meade offers, and he said he is one of a very few who has his own bathroom. But he’s impressed with the model unit he has seen of the Reece Crossings apartments.
“The bedroom is a great size,” said Hayden who lamented that his 6-foot, 2-inch frame has endured years of sleeping on a twin-size barracks bed. “But the thing I like the most is the common area, the kitchen, the whole level of independence that that situation provides, where I don’t have to eat at the dining facility… it’s amazing.”
Once the Reece Crossings apartments come online, junior enlisted personnel will have the option of using their BAH to live on or off post. Picerne said the quality of the community apartments will lure the junior enlisted personnel to the base.
“If we do our job well, we should be able to draw and entice these guys to want to live here,” said Picerne. He said a similar project called Randolph Pointe, a 312-unit apartment complex, was designed for senior enlisted unaccompanied personnel at Fort Bragg, N.C. “Five years ago, we had naysayers, saying there is no way senior enlisted guys, once they got their housing checks, are going to want to live on the installation… We’ve had overwhelming reaction. We’re building phase two now.”
Picerne said the Randolph Pointe complex has had 98 percent occupancy since it opened, and he expects to see the same level of occupancy at Reece Crossings. “We’re already getting requests to live here. We’re already taking orders.”
According to values acquired from local market research for the Fort Meade area, the average off-base rent runs about $2,000. Added expenses for utility costs, cable and internet fees as well as commuting expenses bump that figure up to about $2,600 per person.
At Reece Crossings, each servicemember will pay a flat fee of $1, 296, which will cover the rent of the furnished apartments and the cost of all utilities, services and amenities the community complex will offer. The total for a two-person apartment is $2,592.
The project is open to eligible personnel E-5 and below.
The BAH rates for E-1 to E-4 personnel at Fort Meade is $1,380. The rate for E-5 personnel at Fort Meade is $1,584.
The servicemember gets to pocket the difference between the BAH and the rent they pay.
Rothstein said the base expects to see two of Reece Crossings apartment buildings housing single servicemembers by the end of 2013. Every six months thereafter, he said, two more will be built. “It’s a very aggressive time line the Picerne team has put themselves under to meet the task.”