In Romania, U.S. air base creates economic boom
MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU, Romania — Gheorghe Enache calls himself lucky.
Americans at the nearby base call him a smart businessman. Either way, the hotel owner is a rich man in this farming village, profiting from the American troops who train at the nearby air base.
He and other Romanian business owners are banking on making even more money with plans to rotate brigade-sized groups of U.S. soldiers through the region, beginning as early as next summer.
“It’s very good for us,” Enache said, sipping a glass of Fanta and puffing on a cigarette at a table at Hotel Emi’s restaurant. “This is big.”
The U.S. military looks to Romania as a new NATO ally willing to provide strategic bases that are cheaper and closer to Central Europe and Middle East hot spots without Western Europe’s restrictions. Romania, one of the poorest nations in Europe, sees the rotations as an economic boost.
The presence of American troops near the Black Sea port city of Constanta will probably have little direct economic impact on the country of 23 million. But the hope is that if the U.S. military is in Romania, American corporations will follow.
Whether or not that happens, the Pentagon is pouring millions into the local economy near the base and training areas. The U.S. government is spending $35 million in fiscal 2007 to tear down old buildings and build new ones at an adjacent former Romanian army base, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. The new facilities will house and feed about 2,000 troops. An additional $20 million will be spent on adding more buildings to the site the following year and improving Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, also known as “MK.”
Former Halliburton subsidiary KBR is the big defense contractor on site, but the military is purchasing thousands of dollars’ worth of supplies a day from area businesses instead of shipping the stuff in from elsewhere.
Contractors also are employing hundreds of workers. This summer’s “Proof of Principle Exercise,” which started Aug. 17 and ends Oct. 22, is employing nearly 600 Romanians, from barbers to cooks.
Property values around the base have skyrocketed since the announcement of the rotations. Goat and sheep pastures worth $2,700 per hectare before the arrival of American soldiers are going for thousands of dollars more. For anyone interested, the land across from the gate is for sale.
Maj. Christopher Foote, the Joint Task Force-East director of logistics, said Romanian businessmen are eager to capitalize on the base buildup and foreign investment, but many are unsure what the Americans want or need.
“They ask a lot of questions,” Foote said. “They’re anxious to figure out a way to fit themselves into the economic growth. They’re seeing it and want to know how they can fit into it.”
The U.S. government has offered some help to area companies, providing seminars on how to bid for contracts and do business with the military.
Enache — who also is known as “Ge Ge” — and his wife, Gabriela, are one step ahead of most Romanian business owners. Their 18-room hotel is less than 100 yards away from the air base’s main gate and the only inn in town.
The Enaches planned to build the hotel in the late 1990s largely due to the international airport that shares an airstrip with the military base. But the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States changed everything. When the hotel opened in 2003, the U.S. military used the area as a launching point for troops heading into Iraq during the war.
The hotel rooms were soon full of airmen and soldiers, and the Enaches made changes to accommodate their American guests. Most staff members speak English, the air-conditioned restaurant offers wireless Internet and the top floor has a conference room that has been used for special command events and officer meetings.
The restaurant menu serves up Romanian dishes, but also offers pizza, chicken wings and American-style barbecue ribs.
The hotel lobby’s walls are adorned with letters of appreciation from American generals and letters of commendations from various U.S. military units.
The hotel has increased its staff by 20 percent because of the training, and the Enaches are planning to add another wing to the hotel that will provide an additional 50 guest rooms and a fitness center.
“It also will have a pool,” Enache said, smiling.
It, too, will be the only one in the area. There are no plans to build a swimming pool on base for troops.