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New at Fort Riley, Kansas: A nicer place to call home

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Monday, Feb. 25, 2013, at 11:50 a.m.

FORT RILEY, Kan. — The just-completed Forsyth Neighborhood here looks like a typical new subdivision in any suburban community.

Pretty homes, nice lawns, young trees and smooth streets.

The difference is who lives here: the soldiers who fight America’s wars.

Just a short drive inside the main gate of Fort Riley — home of the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division — Forsyth is part of a massive national push to make military housing more appealing to an all-volunteer force in a century so far beset by two wars and multiple deployments.

At installations across the country, old-fashioned, rundown, 1950s-looking ranches and eight-plex apartment buildings are being demolished to make room for homes with family rooms, expanded master suites and extra baths. And, yes, finally, America’s fighting men and women are getting walk-in closets.

A typical three-bedroom unit for enlisted troops used to be about 1,200 square feet. Now, it’s 1,750. The Forsyth neighborhood, with 1,400 new homes that sit on land that used to be filled with World War II barracks, includes ball fields, a new elementary school, a fitness center, a dog park and community gardens.

Price tag: $550 million.

The work is being done as part of the Military Housing Privatization Initiative, established by Congress in 1996 to improve life on the home front for service members and spouses. The military wants those people to re-up, and 1950s-looking housing isn’t exactly a selling point.

Brian Beauregard, heading the Fort Riley project for Picerne Military Housing, said that what was good enough post-World War II will no longer cut it, especially with the hardship of the past 10 years for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“As the saying goes, it’s the service member who joins, but it’s the family that re-enlists,” Beauregard said.

Or as Rhonda Bartlett, an Army wife for 25 years, put it:

“If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”

There was a time when, if a house on an Army base sprung a leak under the kitchen sink, a soldier with a pipe wrench showed up.

That was when military branches pretty much did everything on Department of Defense installations. But over time, a lot of support work has been farmed out to private contractors, including food service and housing maintenance.

The military used to run schools for service members’ children. Now, those are mostly owned and operated by local school districts.

The push now is to turn housing construction and management over to the private sector.

“The military has strengths, but housing is not one of them,” Beauregard said last week in the Forsyth Neighborhood Center. “Privatization brought in expertise. And it allows the military to get back to its core business of training troops and fighting wars.”

The privatization initiative allows the federal government to contract with private developers to provide housing — better and faster — than the old military construction process. Companies bid for jobs and pay for the projects with bonds.

Service members’ housing allowance then goes to pay down the bonds. Under the contract, the development company owns the homes — just not the ground they sit on — for 50 years. The companies make money from construction and management fees.

John Picerne founded Picerne Military Housing in 1998. The company has since received contracts at seven Army posts, including Fort Meade, Fort Bragg, Fort Riley and Fort Polk, and several Air Force bases, including McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita.

So far, the company has built or renovated more than 20,000 homes.

Picerne said last week from his company’s Rhode Island headquarters that he was shocked when he took his first tour of military base housing. He saw cramped rooms, mold, thin walls with holes, broken furniture, old appliances and outdated plumbing and electrical systems.

“I remember thinking the defenders of our nation live worse than any public housing project,” Picerne said. “It was deplorable. It was shameful.”

If a World War II veteran would see Fort Riley’s new Forsyth community and walk through a home, Picerne said, “It would be like him going to the moon.”

Well, retired Lt. Gen. Richard Seitz has seen Forsyth. He started in the Army in 1940, fought at the Battle of the Bulge and came home to see a few more decades of military housing.

“This represents a great move forward,” Seitz said last week in Junction City, where he lives. “With all the recent deployments, wives have been running things back home. Some of these places haven’t had much change since the 1950s, and families are demanding more now.

“I’m surprised it took so long.”

Staff Sgt. Keith Garvin sprawled out on the couch in the family room and watched TV while his daughter fixed dinner in the kitchen.

He likes his home in Forsyth. Especially after just returning from tough duty in Afghanistan. He’s a 20-year man.

“This is the best I’ve seen in my time in the Army,” Garvin said of his three-bedroom duplex.

No question, said his oldest daughter, Amber, a college student who has made a few stops in her 21 years: “This is the top of the line.”

Garvin and his wife have been in rundown places, not a great life for two girls growing up.

“So we’re glad we’re here,” he said. Then he smiled: “I know a lot of soldiers wish they were here.”

Each Forsyth home includes a tornado-proof safe room, a garage and a maintenance-free yard. The neighborhood is home to soldiers from privates to lieutenant colonels.

Beauregard said Picerne is about two-thirds complete with its Fort Riley construction. The company also is converting a lot of older four-bedroom units to three bedrooms, making bigger rooms and updating fixtures and features.

Renovations, too, are being done to many of Fort Riley’s historic homes, some of which date to the middle to late 1800s. These are where top commanders live near 1st Division headquarters. The homes are getting master suites, new tile and additional bathrooms. When possible, laundry rooms were moved from basements. Wiring and plumbing have been updated.

So far, 216 of the 253 historic renovations have been completed.

Picerne will continue construction, demolition and renovations at Fort Riley through 2016.

Rhonda Bartlett, the 25-year Army wife, said her family has made nine stops, including Fort Bragg, Fort Leonard Wood, Korea and Germany.

Housing was never something the Army was good at, she said.

“I’ve heard people here say the quality of life is so much better now,” said Bartlett, whose sergeant husband, Ancel — her high school sweetheart — is an MP now in Afghanistan.

The couple’s children are grown.

“These soldiers want their family taken care of,” Bartlett said. “If that’s not happening, they aren’t staying in the Army. The ones whose families live in places like here — they can do their missions without worrying about things back home. This place is beautiful.

“Wish I had children now.”

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