Kaiserslautern mall construction moving forward despite delays
RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — For months, the unfinished Kaiserslautern Military Community Center appeared abandoned before it ever opened.
Passers-by saw few — if any — workers on the site of the mall-hotel project. Unused building materials flapped in the wind. Knee-high weeds sprouted around the massive building, a center so big an official once called it the U.S. military’s version of Mall of America.
The facility is still months away from being finished, has no opening date and its roof still occasionally leaks, but there are signs that work has slowly resumed on the controversial project. The signs aren’t dramatic, but any progress on a facility that has seen so little in the last six months is regarded as positive.
“Now the goal is to facilitate everything we can do to get it done this year, so we can get a — no kidding — opening set up,” said Col. Dave Reynolds, who was appointed the project’s resident director late last year.
The project has been delayed so much that officials are hesitant to give an exact opening date.
Key to the recent progress is a deal brokered by the German federal government and contractors. The Air Force revealed the agreement on Thursday but referred any questions about the details to German authorities. Officials with the German state agency overseeing the construction — LBB Kaiserslautern — could not be reached for comment.
Negotiations between government officials and the construction firms, along with interim financing from the Germans, paved the way for more workers to return to their jobs. Last year, contractors pulled many of them from the site due to a backlog of unapproved change orders, which had indefinitely delayed their payments.
On Friday, the Air Force allowed Stars and Stripes to tour the inside of the facility for the first time in months. Previously, repeated requests to take a look inside the building were denied.
On the outside, crews using heavy equipment could be seen moving dirt and cleaning debris. Inside, local contractors in various parts of the facility hammered away on the floor and walls. At the entrances, security personnel scanned ID cards of authorized visitors.
Some workers were back to work after being gone for months.
Contractors who put up a canopy over one of the entrances just last month returned after being absent for a year. Another contractor installing stones around the facility is back on the job after being gone for six months.
Once finished, the 844,000-square-foot facility will include the largest military exchange in Europe, a food court, four movie theaters, a 350-room hotel with two restaurants, and an outdoor recreation center with a climbing wall.
Much of the inside of the hotel is finished, but it will still be months before it sees its first guests. Officials say it is about 90 percent done. All of the rooms are carpeted and have their own microwave, but most are missing furniture. However, ice machines and washers and driers are installed on every floor.
But the roof on both the hotel and the shopping center is one of the biggest problems. It will require a major overhaul and is the main reason construction will take so long to be finished. The original contractor, now bankrupt, did such a poor job installing a rubber lining on top of the roof that it leaked and about half of it had to be taken apart and redone. While many of the leaks have been plugged, Reynolds said Friday that there was some minor leaking during a recent storm that swept through the area.
The roof project will be done in phases. The designs have been approved, but a contract to do the work has not been let yet.
“It’s going to be a big job for those guys,” Reynolds said.
The Air Force and LBB also believe they are on their way to solving another nagging issue: the backlog of change orders. The Air Force has received about 95 percent of the change orders, Reynolds said. The German government is reviewing the rest, he added.
Investigations into the project are ongoing.
Members of the Government Accountability Office plan to visit the site this year as part of a new investigation. Last year, congressional investigators blasted the Air Force for its lack of oversight and estimated the cost of the project could skyrocket to $200 million. The Air Force has disputed those claims, and Reynolds said he is looking forward to showing investigators the progress made since their visit almost a year ago.
A separate inquiry by an internal U.S. Air Forces in Europe group into the lessons learned from the project arrived at similar conclusions last summer. But USAFE spokeswoman Lt. Col. Angela Billings said Friday that the task force is expected to release a new report, possibly by the end of the month.
See more photos of the Kaiserslautern mall here.