By Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 8, 2006
Army officials say they are considering allowing a private developer to build a 125-acre entertainment, hotel and conference center complex next to a national Army museum at Fort Belvoir that could draw more than 1 million people a year to traffic-choked southern Fairfax County.
The possibility of adding what county officials call a military theme park arises as about 22,000 employees prepare to be transferred to Fort Belvoir in the next five years because of the federal base realignment and closure recommendations, designed to save $49 billion nationwide.
The Army is considering the entertainment venue to help offset the cost of the $300 million museum, which a spokesman said is scheduled to open in 2013. No federal funds are being sought for the museum, but Fairfax has donated $240,000.
A Florida developer has submitted an unsolicited proposal for a military theme park that would include the "Chateau Belvoir" hotel and an entertainment district with bars like the "1st Division Lounge" and several "4D" rides.
"You can command the latest M-1 tank, feel the rush of a paratrooper freefall, fly a Cobra Gunship or defend your B-17 as a waist gunner," according to the proposal by Universal City Property Management III of Orlando. The company has no connection to NBC-Universal, which owns Universal Studios, a spokeswoman said yesterday.
Fairfax officials, who have no say over the Army's decision because the site is federal property, said they are worried about an entertainment complex's impact on traffic.
Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) was so upset after hearing about the Universal City proposal last year that he threw company representatives out of his office. He said he had no interest in turning a military history museum into "Disney on Rolling Road." After the meeting, he said, he thought the entertainment concept for the Army museum was dead.
But last week, the Army told Kauffman and other Fairfax officials that it intended to move the museum from the Fort Belvoir entrance to the Engineer Proving Ground a few miles from the post because it needs to increase the size of the complex from 75 acres to 125, which Kauffman said is a prelude to an entertainment complex.
"It seems fairly clear that the Pentagon brass has decided the only way they can succeed with the Army museum is to make a museum wrapped in an amusement park," Kauffman said.
At last week's meeting, county officials pressed the post's commander, Col. Brian W. Lauritzen, about the plans for a large entertainment complex. Lauritzen, who did not use the phrase "theme park" to describe the plans, said the demand for more space for the museum complex seemed to be coming from Army leaders above him.
An Army spokesman, in response to written questions, said the Army is studying what it calls "a visitor destination concept" for the museum but did not elaborate.
"Should the concept be approved, the Army will publicly solicit expressions of interest in the visitor destination concept from the private sector."
The spokesman would not comment specifically on the Universal City proposal but said, "No special consideration is or will be given to any individual or company."
Fort Belvoir was chosen as the site for the Army museum in October 2001 over a location in Carlisle, Pa. The spokesman would not discuss plans for the museum, saying, "Plans are in the development stages and being reevaluated by the Army and are not ready for release."
A source familiar with the museum development process said the Army is considering the public-private partnership for the museum as a way to fund the project. The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to jeopardize his role in the project, said the Army did not solicit the Universal City proposal.
"I wouldn't say it was still on the table," the source said. "I would say the Army received it and said: 'Noted.' Now they are going to do a request for information and see if there is something that is compatible for the museum." The source said the Army will probably ask for other proposals, not necessarily theme parks. "I think they will start from scratch."
He added: "Whatever solution the Army picks, not everybody is going to be happy. There is going to be unhappiness in some quarters somewhere."
Officials with Universal City Property Management in Orlando did not respond to two phone messages. They told the Army that their concept would attract 3 million visitors a year, more than Hersheypark in Pennsylvania or Busch Gardens in Williamsburg.
Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon), who was instrumental in persuading the Army to choose Fort Belvoir for the museum, said the Engineer Proving Ground is "the wrong place to put it."
He said the original idea of putting the museum near the post's main gate would be better for traffic flow and would place it in closer proximity to other tourist attractions, including Mount Vernon.
In 1994, the Walt Disney Co. pulled the plug on a theme park near Haymarket and the Manassas battlefield after running into a groundswell of local, national and international criticism. Disney officials estimated that the park would have drawn about 6 million visitors a year.
Staff writer Alec MacGillis contributed to this report.