Originally created 08/15/04

Privatizing the post



Cpl. Kimberly Watson can't wait for the Huddle House to open at Fort Gordon.

A member of the 513th Military Intelligence Brigade, she counts the chain among her favorite places to eat.

"This is going to be good," she said. "Now I'll be able to eat on base instead of having to go out Gate 5."

In an effort to provide more services and conveniences to military and civilian workers on the post, the Army is turning more to the private sector to meet those needs as the Department of Defense considers closing some of its bases.

The new Huddle House is unique in that it is the post's first public-private venture. The Army is providing the land, but local investors are paying for the construction of the building, hiring all employees and overseeing its management.

That differs from the Starbucks Coffee, the Burger King and the car wash that have opened in the past few years. They are run through the Army & Air Force Exchange System. The agency supports troops and their families by providing everyday services at military installations around the world. It will soon be adding a Godfather's Pizza, Seattle's Best Coffee and Firestone car-care center to its roster of businesses at Fort Gordon.

"The soldiers like it better," said Pat Bucholz, who is responsible for recruiting many of the private-sector businesses to Fort Gordon. "Why shouldn't we offer them the same service any other community would?"

Ms. Bucholz said that the Army restricts what services the military can provide but that bases get around that by bringing private-sector businesses on base.

In the case of the Huddle House, 24-hour dining was not previously available to students, soldiers and medical personnel, Ms Bucholz said. It is also the only casual-dining restaurant on the installation.

For the Huddle House's owners, the restaurant has almost no competition and nearly 20,000 potential customers.

"You have an unbelievable marketplace out there," said Richard Leonard, one of the owners. "Not only do you have the active-duty soldiers, but there's the retirees and the civilian traffic that come out to play bingo or golf."

Ms. Bucholz said the Army restricts competition on its bases, meaning a Waffle House or another Huddle House likely won't be permitted on base.

There is competition to get permission to operate within the fences, however.

When a base is interested in doing a public-private partnership, or if AAFES wants to bring a new business to the base, it must seek bids from the public.

Mr. Leonard and his partner, Jim Hall, approached Fort Gordon about opening the Huddle House, yet they still had to go through the process and were lucky enough to have their proposal selected.

Should the base be closed, however, the contract with private investors includes a buy-out clause that essentially reimburses those investors for costs they were unable to recoup through their normal business operations.

Once established on the post, private-sector businesses have access to an almost-perfect operating environment, but it does come at a cost: The Army requires private-sector businesses to give a percentage of their profits to the Morale, Welfare and Recreation department.

It is responsible for providing recreational activities on base, including the bowling alley, dinner theater and golf course. The organization receives no government funds; instead, funds come from public-private investments, like Huddle House, and from businesses managed by AAFES.

AAFES donates about 67 percent of its earnings to MWR, while public-private ventures negotiate the percentage given based on their earnings and operating expenses.

Though the addition of private-sector businesses to the fort suggests that less money will be spent by service members and their families off-post, military personnel and city economic developers say the business growth is good for the base and the community.

Thom Tuckey, a retired Army colonel and former garrison commander of Fort Gordon, said many of the soldiers who will dine at the Huddle House or have their cars repaired at Firestone would not have left the base for those services anyway.

"They don't have enough time to eat to go off post and come back," he said. "This gives them another option to the restaurants on base or packing their own lunch."

The Godfather's Pizza, for example, will simply give service members a place other than Burger King to eat. The Firestone will be located in Fort Gordon's car-care center, where base residents already can go to fix their cars themselves. Firestone just brings professionals in to do it for them.

Ed Presnell, the president of the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce, agrees, adding that many soldiers will still spend a considerable amount of money off the post.

"They're going to leave base any time they can," he said. "This just saves time for the soldiers."

About 10,000 of the 18,000 soldiers and civilian employees at Fort Gordon live off base and pump many millions of dollars into the community. The private-sector amenities just make things a little more convenient for them during business hours.

The added operations and services could strengthen the base's standing in terms of the upcoming Base Realignment and Closure proceedings.

"Any time we can improve the quality of life of the service members and their families, it makes them want to be here," said Mr. Tuckey, who runs the Fort Gordon Alliance, which is working to protect the base from closure. "If the service members want to stay in Augusta and want to come to Augusta, that's the kind of attitude we want to instill."

Reach James Gallagher at (706) 823-3227 or james.gallagher@augustachronicle.com.