At a time when U.S. military bases are using early retirement, natural attrition and hiring freezes to battle federal budget cuts and avoid layoffs at its trading posts and strip malls, Fort Gordon is faced with a different question.
Should the layout of its expanded Post Exchange resemble a giant V or an interconnected grid of cafés, shops and merchandise displays?
Right-angled rows and columns won last week, when architects finalized the design of the new $32 million shopping mall Fort Gordon plans to open in April 2015.
The format has been branded on convenience, officials said, and should help the Army post compete with Wal-Mart’s football field-size supercenters and stave off the rise of dollar stores and online retailers, which thrived during the recession.
“It’s going to be huge,” Sheila Miller, the store manager of the Fort Gordon Exchange, said of the makeover during a tour of the facility last week with The Augusta Chronicle. “We’re renovating from floor to ceiling.”
In September, builders are expected to begin construction, blasting out walls along the northern and western boundaries of the old Post Exchange to nearly double it in size from 98,000 to 177,000 square feet.
When completed, Stefan Marks, the general manager of the Fort Gordon Exchange, said, the new trading post “will have an impact on all trades.”
The food court will be moved from the east to the west side of the exchange and will have two new eating choices. The shopping area will be divided into three sections – entertainment, casual living and home wares – and aisles and hallways will be widened for short-term vendors, contracted on a limited basis to offer variety through the sale of items from mobile carts. And the trading post’s auxiliary location will be combined with the main exchange on Third Avenue and consequently almost double its stockroom in size.
“The customers are really excited, especially retirees who have been here a long time and have seen the exchange grow from a small shop to a large store,” Miller said.
The Fort Gordon Post Exchange was build in 1995 with a standard layout, akin to the ones seen in Kmart, Target and Wal-Mart.
Its main entrance, shopping aisles and stockroom are cramped, overrun by the center’s success. It netted more than $8 million in earnings in 2012, thanks to an exemption from sales tax and an average merchandise price that is 25 percent less than department stores off Fort Gordon, receipts show.
Nationwide, the U.S. Army and Air Force Exchange Service is a $10 billion industry that’s larger than Starbucks, Office Depot and Dillard’s.
Twenty percent of the earnings the Fort Gordon Exchange netted last year – $1.6 million – were pumped back into the post to help fund child-care centers, youth programs, gyms, bowling centers, pools and other recreational activities on the installation. Support was also given to the Fort Gordon Wounded Warrior Project, which helps fallen soldiers gain the skills they need to be competitive in the civilian world.
“People are not just shopping here,” Miller said. “They are supporting the post community.”
Miller’s comments are directed primarily toward soldiers such as Pfc. Dominique Humphrey, who arrived at Fort Gordon on Nov. 2 after going through training at Fort Benning, Ga.
Humphrey, 19, of Little Rock, Ark., lives on Fort Gordon and shops at the Post Exchange twice a week for air fresheners, school supplies and groceries because there’s no tax and the prices are “super low,” he said.
“It’s very convenient,” Humphrey said. “You can get everything you need all in one place and not have to go off base.”
The Fort Gordon Post Exchange has 22 permanent shopkeepers, six vending operations and four food providers. In addition, the exchange normally has 10 to 12 short-term cart concessions under limited contract to provide a variety of goods.
The booming business is good for Fort Gordon and, in turn, Augusta employment. The exchange currently has 345 associates – 101 military family members, 23 veterans and five reserve members.
That list includes Exchange Stockroom Manager Charles Thrasher, who was ruled ineligible for military service because he has only one kidney.
The news hit Thrasher hard. As an admitted “military brat” who was raised on bases in Germany, California, Wyoming and Nevada, the call to serve is in Thrasher’s blood. His father served in Vietnam, Cambodia and Desert Storm. His grandfather and great-grandfather served in their generation’s world wars.