Long-awaited PX opens at Camp Humphreys in time for holiday shopping
By MARCUS FICHTL AND KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 20, 2017
CAMP HUMPHREYS, South Korea — Confetti swirled in the air while South Korean drummers and the 8th Army band played Monday to celebrate the grand opening of Camp Humphreys' new post exchange, the third largest in the world.
It was the latest in a series of ribbon-cuttings at the expanded Army garrison, which is the centerpiece of plans to relocate the bulk of U.S. forces on the divided peninsula to regional hubs south of Seoul.
“The fact that [the Army and Air Force Exchange Service] was able to pull this all together and do it in time for our holiday shopping is just a phenomenal undertaking,” 8th Army commander Lt. Gen. Thomas Vandal told hundreds of eager shoppers.
Even actor Mark Wahlberg got in on the hype with a public service announcement. He sent a personalized cellphone video telling troops to “enjoy your new store and come home soon.”
The population on the base already has doubled to 26,000 since last year after the 8th Army moved its headquarters from Yongsan Garrison in Seoul over the summer. It’s ultimately expected to surpass 46,000 after U.S. Forces Korea and the 2nd Infantry Division relocate from areas closer to the border with North Korea.
That prompted AAFES to expedite the opening of the $63 million, 300,000-square-foot PX, which hadn’t been due to start operations until March.
“It opened now because we felt with all the family members coming in over the summer, it was critical that we give them a taste of home and have a holiday season that they would normally have in America here in Korea,” AAFES director Tom Shull told Stars and Stripes.
“We wanted to make sure that we opened in time to ship presents home,” he added, noting the new store has increased the amount of area-specific military souvenirs and accessories on sale.
Shull said AAFES was able to push forward the completion date even though it hadn’t been budgeted for this year because it has flexibility as a non-appropriated fund agency. It uses profits to pay for store operations but distributes the remainder to on-base Morale, Welfare and Recreation activities, including school lunches, he said.
South Korea paid nearly $50 million for the store’s construction, while the United States paid about $13 million to outfit it with fixtures, furniture and other items, officials said.
The PX, which has 430 employees and 13 registers, is one of the main anchors of Camp Humphreys' new $204.5 million downtown complex that includes a food court and a new commissary due to open in February.
Officials said it’s the third largest in the world after the exchanges at Kaiserslautern Military Community Center in Germany and Kadena Air Base in Japan.
The earlier-than-expected opening was good news for U.S. military officials who have faced multiple delays in the garrison’s $10.7 billion expansion since the two countries agreed to the relocation plan in 2004.
But pressure mounted this year as the population growth squeezed services on the former remote outpost in the rural area of Pyeongtaek, about 40 miles south of Seoul. “Back in March, we never thought this would happen,” Vandal said.
Tawana Johnson, an Army spouse who was scoping out Christmas gifts for her son, was happy with the results.
“The store has a lot of variety, a great selection for the kids — especially for the boys,” the 35-year-old from Albany, Ga., said. “It’s pretty much like a Walmart.”
Staff Sgt. Xavier Flores, a military policeman at Camp Humphreys, said the new store will make his stay much easier.
“It will make the year go by quicker,” said the 27-year-old from San Antonio, Texas. “It has more stuff to do, more stuff to buy and more stuff to waste money on.”