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FORT BELVOIR

Army Holds Fast to Museum Plan

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By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 9, 2006

Army officials signaled yesterday that they are all but certain to build a major museum at the Engineer Proving Ground a couple of miles northwest of Fort Belvoir, rather than a site local government officials prefer on the post itself.

In recent months, Army officials had suggested that they were still open to placing the National Museum of the Army just inside one of Belvoir's gates. Fairfax County officials favor that site because it is closer to other tourist destinations near the Route 1 corridor, such as Mount Vernon. County officials predict that placing the museum at the proving ground would further overload roads around a parcel where the Pentagon is planning to move 18,000 employees.

But Army officials made plain their determination to stick with the proving ground at a forum yesterday at Belvoir for about 150 developers interested in an offer to build a conference center, hotel, restaurants and shops around the museum. That development would help pay for the museum, and there is more room for it at the proving ground.

At the forum, Army officials went into great detail about the proving ground as the new museum's home and mentioned only in passing that the final site decision won't be made until summer.

"The museum has been moved [to the proving ground]. That's fairly definite," Lt. Col. Diana Varhola, a museum spokeswoman, said in an interview. She said the choice was made even though the Army has also decided to build a $27 million "museum support center" -- for artifacts and some staff -- at the main post.

The Army's intention to build so much on the proving ground upsets county officials, who are bracing for the traffic impact in southern Fairfax of the Pentagon's relocation of thousands of employees to the Belvoir area by 2011.

County officials say they would like to channel more of the increases in Army-related traffic toward the main 8,000-acre post rather than the wooded 800-acre proving ground, which lies on the opposite side of Interstate 95 and has limited local road access. They contend that the museum would be out of place at the proving ground, wedged between the high-security agencies the Army is also moving there and quiet, single-family neighborhoods on the proving ground's edge.

"We feel strongly that it needs to be with the other tourist sites, rather than being basically in a bedroom community" at the proving ground, said Kathy Ichter, the county's director of transportation, who attended the forum. "We just feel the bus is already leaving the station, and the community agreement is not there."

County officials also have expressed concerns about a proposal from a former Universal Studios executive to turn the museum into a military theme park. The Army recently disavowed that plan amid protests. There was no mention of theme park elements at yesterday's forum.

But Army officials told the assembled developers that they envisioned more than a conventional museum. They plan a parade ground and outdoor displays of military vehicles. The venue also could host battle reenactments. Museum Director Judson E. Bennett Jr. said the Army wanted to emphasize "entertainment and excitement" over the educational displays most often associated with history museums.

"When we talk about education, it doesn't inspire people to come to our museum," he said. "We have to use something else to get them hooked. Then we can educate them."

As much as 90 of the 160 acres of the museum site would be made available to developers for a conference center, hotel, shops or whatever else they propose to bring in money for the museum.

The Army's invitation to the private sector is part of a drive to maximize revenue from its properties.

Developers said they saw great potential around the museum that could turn the proving ground into a major destination, particularly with so many jobs and activity moving into the Belvoir area.

"People are excited by the opportunity to see what could happen over there," said Corey Nolan, an executive with Clark Realty, based in Bethesda. "It really is a blank slate."


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