At Fort Meade, workers to turn barracks into homes

Soldiers to get preview of coming housing repairs

April 14, 2002|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

After unexpected delays and the bankruptcy of its partner, the private company hired to overhaul military housing at Fort Meade finally has something besides blueprints to show to the base's resident soldiers.

Picerne Real Estate Group is turning a burned-out town house on Reece Road into a temporary neighborhood center. Workers have gutted the inside and replaced the building's roof, insulation and windows. By the end of the month, Picerne's property managers will move their offices into the center in hopes of answering residents' questions ranging from when they will begin replacing the base's 2,700 run-down units to how long it might take to fix a toilet.

The center is the first of thousands of structures that will be renovated or rebuilt under the Odenton base's 50-year, $3 billion plan to turn barracks-style properties into homes complete with amenities such as carpeting and a second bathroom. And it is the first tangible sign that, after years of planning and months of talking, the privatization movement is in full swing at Fort Meade.

"We want to show that the company wants to do a good job for the residents here," said Bill Simpson, the senior superintendent on the rehab job, as he watched workers carry in windows. "And yes, we need to give them confidence."

George Barbee, the Army's program manager for the initiative, said the neighborhood center on Reece Road - one of five temporary structures Picerne will build on the 5,415-acre installation - is an important step in the privatization process. Another one comes next month, when Picerne is expected to assume all property-management functions that the Army's Department of Public Works now handles. Picerne, which is based in Warwick, R.I., expects to break ground on the project in June, and expects the first house to be completed by March.

"We're going to get busy," Barbee said of the next few months, "but we're going to be able to visualize the results, and people will be able to see it and appreciate it. There will be almost immediate improvements."

For many involved in the project, the flurry of activity is a relief.

A year ago, when the Army chose Picerne and another company, Pittsburgh-based IT Group, to overhaul the base's housing, observers expected some bumps in the road.

Fort Meade was one of four pilot sites nationwide to begin the Residential Communities Initiative, a program approved by Congress in 1996 to eradicate substandard housing at military bases nationwide. The $400 million that the partnership expected to spend in its first 10 years was nearly twice the cost of building Arundel Mills mall.

And then there were the project's ambitious goals: Over 10 years, demolish about 2,700 run-down units and replace them with five communities built in distinct architectural styles and anchored by neighborhood centers, collect rents from soldiers' base housing allowances, and manage the homes for the next 50 years.

Fort Meade's main residents include 2,500 families of military personnel - mostly junior noncommissioned officers - working for the base's large tenants such as the National Security Agency, as well as military police who patrol the base.

The Army considered IT Group and Picerne a good match - IT knew how to manage government contracts, while Picerne knew how to build and manage properties.

"When we partnered initially, we made eye contact," Barbee said. "We both had high expectations, and we would not accept anything less. The obstacles were there, and we overcame them - a lot of times in 24 hours."

But few involved in the project predicted that IT Group would soon be teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. By January, it had laid off its 12 employees at Fort Meade, including program manager Charles Debelius.

Debelius said the staff was nervous for "about 10 minutes." The next day, Picerne President John Picerne announced he would hire the whole IT team.

Last month, IT sold its interest in the project to Picerne. The concern changed its name from MC Partners to Meade-Picerne Partners.

"There was really no hiccup at all, really no impact," Debelius said.

Barbee, who has been involved in military housing for 40 years, said IT's troubles would have endangered the project if John Picerne had not stepped in.

"He gave us assurances that he would do whatever he could to overcome that obstacle," Barbee said, "and he did."

Meade-Picerne is hiring 60 people in its property-management office. A long maintenance backlog awaits them - residents sometimes wait up to a week for electrical and plumbing repairs. Fixing roofs, streets and sidewalks can take months, Barbee said.

But Picerne is speeding up the hiring of contractors. Thanks to a recent job fair at Arundel Mills, the company has a list of more than 600 companies that can provide everything from painting to pest control. It hired six subcontractors for the neighborhood center job.

"We don't have to follow Army procurement procedures," Debelius said. "If we want to hire a painter, we don't need three pages of wall-paint specifications."

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