Leader Blues

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

TOP STORY>> Community center for base

IN SHORT: A $1.2 million town hall is intended as a meeting place as the air base privatizes housing.

By John Hofheimer
Leader staff writer

Cong. Vic Snyder, Brig. Gen. (Select) Joseph Reheiser and representatives of American Eagle Communities and its affiliates turned the first shovels of dirt Monday on a 7,018 square foot, $1.2 million town hall—the centerpiece of privatization of Little Rock Air Force Base’s housing.

“This is a great day for Little Rock Air Force Base,” Reheiser said. “This is a great partnership with Shaw Infrastructure and American Eagle and three generations of the Carabetta family.”

Reheiser admitted being skeptical when he first took command of the base, having been raised and lived in military housing all his life, but said American Eagle soon made a believer out of him.

“This is more than just a building, it’s a place where we can come together,” he said.

“We hope to be done in three or four months,” said Kathryn Thompson, managing director of American Eagle.

The town hall will include three meeting rooms, an exercise room, a cyber café, a media room and leasing offices, and outdoors will include courts for basketball and volleyball, a junior Olympic swimming pool, a playground and a sprayground, where youngsters can play in the mist during the summer, she said.

Thompson said the homes, whether duplexes or single-family homes, would each have at least three bedrooms and be 1,700 square feet each.

Thompson said all 1,200 homes would be constructed or remodeled within the five-year development period.

Currently the homes at Little Rock Air Force Base are about 86 percent occupied by about 1,800 airmen and families.

Later this year, some could move into new or newly renovated homes as part of a multi-year, more than $500 million management and rehabilitation agreement.

The initial development contract of $111 million for Little Rock Air Force Base also included a 50-year operating agreement valued at more than $400 million.

American Eagle is responsible for housing upkeep and maintenance for the duration of the agreement, in addition to managing the housing program for the base.

Unlike the existing homes, built in the 1950s and 1960s—before families gathered around the television set—these homes will have great rooms and home offices, according to Howard Lazarus, operations director for American Eagle.

“We’re going to bring home the American dream to warriors,” said Tom Brockway, American Eagle’s local project manager. He said the town hall would allow residents to become neighbors and neighbors to become friends.

American Eagle Communities submitted the winning bid to buy the houses — but not the land — to raze and rebuild 468 homes and remodel another 732, manage the houses and collect the rents. Eventually there will be 1,200 housing units.

American Eagle Communities is a joint venture of CEI Invest-ment Corporation and Shaw Infra-structure. CEI is in the Carabetta family. Capstone Building will do the actual construction.

“This has been a long time in the process,” said Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim. “It’s really going to be worthwhile to the military.”

The new housing will be “different as night and day” from the existing housing,” he said.

“I don’t see any appreciable effect on (Jacksonville and the surrounding communities),” said Swaim, “except there will be fewer houses on base than before, but better.”

At the time the contract was signed, there were 1,535 homes. When the project is done, there will be 1,200.

Even before attendees left the ceremony, held beneath a giant oak tree, a track hoe began tearing huge bites from an adjacent duplex. The debris will be run through a shredder and hauled to the dump.

Since airbase housing is now private, each house or duplex is subject to county property taxes — a point American Eagle fought the county on.

County Assessor Janet Trout-man Ward said her employees would be appraising each of the houses, whether new, remodeled or awaiting remodeling, but she could not speculate as to the values of the homes or of the property taxes to the county.
“That would be voodoo appraising,” she said.

No county officials attended — County Judge Buddy Villines was out of town — and Ward said she believed the county was being snubbed because it was insisting on collecting property taxes.

American Eagle took possession of the homes last August.

“They haven’t given us any information,” Ward said. “But they’ll still have to buy building permits. Let’s see where they are going and whether they are forthcoming. We’ve got the deeds in big huge separate piles.”

Rents are based on airmen’s housing allowances, so property taxes cut into American Eagle profits.

The hard part will be developing or determining legal descriptions for all those houses on all those parcels which had previously been an unappraised lump of land, she said.