By Carlos Bongioanni

Stars and Stripes

FORT MEADE, Md. – Talk of severe budget cuts threatening the U.S. military did not keep Army officials from breaking ground Wednesday on a 432-unit apartment complex .

A ceremonial shovel scoop capped a morning of praise for a $72 million project at Fort Meade that won’t cost the Army a dime in construction costs. The added bonus, officials said, is the quality-of-life boost for unaccompanied junior enlisted personnel from the apartment units.

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 furnished apartments – with master suites, walk-in 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, to be built by Picerne Military House, will be within walking distance of the installations major amenities and comes with a community pool, clubhouse, workout room, game room, basketball and volleyball courts, covered pavilions and barbecue areas.

The Fort Meade project, known as Reece Crossings, could be a prototype for Army junior enlisted housing, Hammack said: “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 shortage of barracks at Fort Meade is one of the main factors behind the push for the Reece Crossings project. More than 1,300 unaccompanied servicemembers from all branches of the military who are assigned to the post have been forced to seek off-base housing, according to Col. Edward Rothstein, garrison commander.

“We’ve got to do something about that,” he said. “The reality is we’re in a fiscally challenging time. ... 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 forced the Army to reconsider how it has housed its single and unaccompanied enlisted members who rank E-5 and below.

“One of the things we can’t afford to do is build more barracks,” Hammack said. Recent budget cuts and those proposed by sequestration have a “devastating” impact on military installations worldwide, she said, putting basic amenities for servicemembers in “serious jeopardy.”

Facing a shrinking construction budget, Army officials sought a private venture for Reece Crossings. John Picerne, the chief executive officer of Corvias Group -- the parent company of Picerne Military Housing -- said he was undaunted by the scope of the project.

“This is a small installation with a lot of commands, a lot of growth and no place to put junior enlisted” personnel, he said. The lack of barracks triggered an exodus off the post, he said, with base-area housing allowances that don’t go far in the increasingly competitive housing market there.

As cybersecurity agencies have consolidated at Fort Meade in recent years, bringing high-paying jobs to the region, growing demand for housing sent local real estate costs skyrocketing, he said.

According to market research for the Fort Meade area, the average off-base rent runs about $2,000 — or $2,600 including utilities, cable, internet and commuting expenses.

For a two-person apartment at Reece Crossings, each servicemember will pay $1, 296 including utilities, services and amenities.

The basic allowance for housing for junior enlisted doesn’t compare to those of the senior ranks or of the married families, Picerne said. “But they’re competing for the same product, the same homes. So they unfortunately find themselves moving further and further away.” Those who have the greatest need for social and workplace connectivity are often farther afield, with 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, who has one of the larger style barracks rooms that Fort Meade offers, said he is one of a very few who has his own bathroom. But he’s impressed with the model unit of the Reece apartments.

“The bedroom is a great size,” said Hayden, who lamented that at 6-foot-2, he had to endure 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.”

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 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,” he said. “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.”

Rothstein said the base expects to see two of Reece Crossings apartment buildings housing single servicemembers by the end of 2013. Two more will be built every six months afterward.

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