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Green Light Given for Construction of $120 million,
1,000-room Fort Lee Hotel to Begin This Summer

By Michael Buettner, The Progress-Index, Petersburg, Va.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

May 11, 2010--FORT LEE -- Military officials have given the green light to start construction this summer on a $120 million, 1,000-room hotel to house students at Fort Lee's rapidly expanding military training centers.

Fort Lee Garrison Commander Col. Michael G. Morrow has signed a "Finding of No Significant Impact," or FONSI, certifying that the Army's environmental assessment shows that the proposed Army Lodging facility's efficts "are not significant and will not adversely affect the quality of the environment."

The signing of the FONSI completes the post's review of the plan under the National Environmental Policy Act and eliminates the need for a formal environmental impact statement, which would require a more stringent economic analysis.

In addition, the Office of the Secretary of Defense has given approval to the Army's Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command (FMWRC) to award a contract for construction of the lodging. The Army said it expects to award a contract within two to three weeks and construction to start 60 days after that, or by the end of July. Completion is expected by mid-2012.

FMWRC, which operates Army Lodging facilities on bases around the world, had already awarded a contract for design of the hotel to the Korte Co. of St. Louis, Mo., and Highland, Ill., but could not put the construction contract up for bids until the FONSI was signed and the Defense Department gave its OK.

Construction of the lodging facility originally was expected to start before the end of last year but was delayed after controversy erupted when the project was formally unveiled last August.

Some local business owners and government officials were taken aback by the size of the project and worried that it would hurt the local economy. They formed an alliance, now known as the Hospitality Coalition, and sought to persuade the Army to perform a detailed study of the potential economic impact of the project. In response to the coalition's concerns, the Army extended the original public comment period on the proposal for 30 days.

The concerns prompted the Crater District Planning Commission to pay a consulting firm to do a study of the potential economic impact of the hotel. That study concluded that local communities will see a huge spike in revenue as Fort Lee's student body expands before the hotel is built, and revenue will return to slightly above current levels after the hotel opens.

The Hospitality Coalition paid another consulting firm for a study of its own, which concluded that the opening of the hotel could pull $45 million a year out of the regional economy and eliminate 601 jobs.

In a statement announcing the signing of the FONSI, the Army said it had taken the economic questions into account. "Although concern was raised over the economic impacts of constructing the lodging facility, the (environmental assessment) determined that the economic impacts were not significant," it said. "The economic concerns raised were important and were considered in the overall decision-making process," Morrow said.

Dennis K. Morris, executive director of the Crater Planning District Commission, said Monday his group "stands by the findings of the RKG report," assuming that the forecasts of daily student demand are accurate.

Based on recent updates from the Army Logistics University, Morris added, "the numbers have been pretty much on the mark. I think it bodes very well for more and more students coming to Fort Lee."

Hospitality Coalition spokesman Linas Kojelis issued a statement Monday saying the group was "disappointed greatly" to learn of the signing of the FONSI.

"The coalition is proud of its achievements in mobilizing the region's business community and raising important questions, and working with our elected officials and other leaders in the U.S. Congress on this issue," it said. "Our questions and concerns were taken seriously by Washington. Sadly, too many of our concerns remain unaddressed."

The statement reiterated the coalition's position that the lodging facility will hurt the local economy, especially the hospitality industry, and that the Army has been unwilling to engage in "a direct, two-way discussion based on a mutually agreed-upon agenda."

Officials at Fort Lee and FMWRC contended throughout the debate that the hotel, which has been on the drawing board since 2003, is essential to the post's mission to train soldiers and that military guidelines require it to house 80 percent of its students on post. Even with the construction of the lodging facility, Fort Lee will fall slightly short of that goal.

In addition, the Army has argued that the regional economy will benefit from the roughly $120 million to be spent on construction and the hiring of about 275 permanent employees for the hotel, as well as increased travel to the area by people who are not eligible to stay in Army lodging.

The hotel will pay about $6.4 million in annual wages and will buy about $2.1 million in goods and services, much of it locally, officials have said.

- Michael Buettner may be reached at 722-5155 or mbuettner@progress-index.com.

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Copyright (c) 2010, The Progress-Index, Petersburg, Va.

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