|By Michael Buettner, The Progress-Index,
Petersburg, Va.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Apr. 16, 2010--FORT LEE -- A plan to build a 1,000-room military hotel at Fort Lee has received the go-ahead from a Senate subcommittee, giving the project final congressional approval and clearing the next-to-last hurdle before construction can begin.
The Senate Armed Services Committee's Subcommittee on Personnel, chaired by Sen. Jim Webb, has approved the roughly $120 million project and sent a letter Wednesday signed by Webb and ranking Republican member Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, notifying the Pentagon of its decision.
Will Jenkins, a spokesman for Webb, said in an e-mail that the subcommittee approved the plan "following a thorough review that confirmed the on-post facility was necessary to satisfy the Army's mission requirements, was in the best interests of the U.S. taxpayer and would not adversely affect the post's local lodging industry."
Jenkins noted that "The towns of Petersburg and Hopewell issued public resolutions supporting the new lodging facility. In addition, studies have documented that there will be a significant increase in off-post hotel occupancy when new courses are added at Fort Lee even with the new facility."
The Army Lodging facility received approval in March from the House Armed Services Committee's Military Personnel Subcommittee. With the Senate subcommittee's OK, the only remaining decision needed for the project to go forward is a proposed Finding of No Significant Impact, or FONSI, based on a draft environmental assessment submitted in February for public comment. The proposed document awaits the signature of Fort Lee Garrison Commander Col. Michael G. Morrow.
The assessment as proposed concludes that the roughly $120 million project "is not expected to result in significantly adverse individual or cumulative impacts to resources at or in the vicinity of Fort Lee." And the proposed FONSI states: "Based on my review of the facts and analysis contained in this Environmental Assessment ... I conclude that the effects of implementation of the proposed action are not significant and will not adversely affect the quality of the environment."
The FONSI is significant because if the Army had determined that the hotel project would have a significant environmental impact, it would have been required to prepare a full environmental impact statement -- a much more detailed and time-consuming process that would have pushed back the start of an already-delayed project.
William P. Bradner, a spokesman for the Army's Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command, or FMWRC, which is in charge of the project, said the next steps if the FONSI is issued will be "finalizing design, construction contract negotiation, and finalizing the loan" that will finance construction.
Construction originally was expected to start by the end of last year but was delayed after controversy erupted when detailed plans for the project were unveiled last summer. A number of members of the business community were alarmed by the unexpected size of the proposed lodging, and some local government officials worried that the facility would hurt the local economy by keeping soldiers from spending money off-post.
A business coalition that was created in response to the lodging plan, now known as the Hospitality Coalition, mounted an effort to extend the original comment period to address concerns about the proposal's possible economic impact. The Army later agreed to add 30 days to the original 30-day period.
The coalition also successfully lobbied members of Congress to seek additional information about the economics of the project before considering whether to give it final approval.
The Hospitality Coalition issued a statement Thursday through spokesman Linas Kojelis saying it was disappointed by the subcommittee's decision. "Though we regret this decision, we greatly appreciated the opportunity to meet earlier this month with the staffs of Sen. Jim Webb, Sen. Mark Warner and the subcommittee to discuss the hotel as well as other difficulties with Army lodging in our area." The coalition said it had received a letter from Webb and Warner related to the subcommittee's decision and that it would " withhold any further comment pending review of this correspondence by our steering committee."
Officials at Fort Lee and FMWRC have contended throughout the debate that the hotel 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.
In addition, the Army has argued that the regional economy will benefit from the roughly $100 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.
In addition, the Army estimates that demand for off-post lodging will continue to generate revenue for local hotels on the order of $19.6 million a year. The increased student population is expected to produce $4.2 million in annual revenue for area restaurants and bars.
- Michael Buettner may be reached at 722-5155 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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