Leader Blues

Friday, December 12, 2008

TOP STORY > >Base residents meet new developers, are optimistic

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

No tumbleweeds swept along one wind-scrubbed Little Rock Air Force Base street Wednesday — past the shells of new homes and concrete slabs that American Eagle abandoned 18 months ago.

But the yards still need bush hogging, doorless garages stand open and empty, and Tyvek construction wrap slaps against water-swelled chipboard sheathing, a suburban ghost town awaiting the bulldozer.

But now there’s a new sheriff in town and airmen and their families are optimistic that long-promised housing relief is on the way.

In place of failed developer American Eagle stands Hunt-Pinnacle, a proven partnership that has built 67,000 military housing units—that’s Hunt—and Pinnacle, a 30-year-old property-management company that currently manages more than 175,000 units nationwide, including 15,000 military units on 20 different installations.
Brig. Gen. Rowayne Schatz is familiar withtheir work and readily vouches for them.

“I was stationed at Scott Air Force Base, so I already had experience with Hunt-Pinnacle,” the general said. “Right after the sale, the wing commander at Dover Air Force Base called me to praise the new developers.”

Schatz hosted a town meeting Wednesday night for base residents, who seemed pleased with the new, experienced developers who have taken over project, if the mood of approximately 60 residents attending the meeting is any indication.

“It was a very good, positive, upbeat meeting,” said Ken Williams, base spokesman. “People arrived and left with a positive outlook.”

Representatives of the new developers were on hand to answer questions.

In 2003, American Eagle Communities won an Air Force privatization contract to demolish about 500 homes, build 468 new housing units and remodel 732. But by May 2007, when the bankers pulled the plug on American Eagle for nonperformance, only 25 homes had been completed, another 25 started and perhaps 50 concrete slabs poured. Subconstractors and suppliers were owed millions of dollars at Little Rock and the other three Air Force bases where American Eagle had won privatization contracts.

Under the new name of The Landings at Little Rock, Hunt-Pinnacle will finish out 10 of those housing starts and tear down the balance, including the slabs, which don’t confirm to the new developer’s blue prints.

American Eagle, which was a partnership of Shaw Infrastructure of Baton Rouge and the managing partner, Carabetta Enterprises of Meridan Conn., similarly failed to live up to its agreement at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, Hanscomb in Maryland and Patrick in Florida.

Under pressure from the lenders and the Air Force, American Eagle Nov. 4 signed an agreement to sell the four projects as a bundle to Hunt-Pinnacle.

Top representatives of Hunt-Pinnacle were at the base this week and briefed reporters in the afternoon before answering questions for the residents at a later town meeting.

American Eagle’s contract was to build or renovate and manage 1,200 homes. The new, scaled-down contract calls for Hunt-Pinnacle to build or complete 141 new homes, renovate 834 units and retain the 25 occupied homes the old developer completed for a total of 1,000 units.

“Everything American Eagle built was built very well,” said Derek Veerkamp, a Hunt Group vice president.

The renovations will include new siding, roofs, guttering, floor coverings and bathroom and kitchen upgrades, according to Veerkamp.

They will open a construction office by the middle of this month and begin the clean up of construction sites in January.

Completion of the partially built homes should begin in February, renovations in April and new construction should begin in June.

When possible, the new developers will use the same contractors and suppliers that American Eagle used, Veerkamp said.

“We’ve been on site and started performing maintenance on day one,” said Paula Baker, investment manager for Pinnacle.

Schatz said American Eagle was way behind schedule and over cost when the bankers shut down the construction money in May 2007.

“They had 25 houses complete and there should have been almost 200,” he said.

“We tried to work with them but by July we decided the best solution would be (for American Eagle) so sell their contract to someone else who could perform,” the general said.

He said he was more comfortable with the current contract calling for 1,000 housing units instead of the original contract, which called for 1,200.

He said the economy and market forces made 1,000 units more logical.

Schatz said there was a 40-month construction schedule.

Remodeling costs will cost the developer about $50,000 a unit and the new units will cost about $150,000 to bring in, the general estimated.

Existing residents will be moved into available house as substandard housing is demolished or renovated, according to Baker.

She said efforts would be made to minimize disruption.