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Ramstein's transformation edging toward fruition

Two C-17 Globemaster IIIs taxi on the busy new ramp while construction of the new hotel continues at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Sunday, March 19, 2006.  The 350-room billeting is slated to open in September as part of the Kaiserslautern Military Community Center. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. John E. Lasky)

Two C-17 Globemaster IIIs taxi on the busy new ramp while construction of the new hotel continues at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Sunday, March 19, 2006. The 350-room billeting is slated to open in September as part of the Kaiserslautern Military Community Center. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. John E. Lasky)

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- Parts of this hectic airlift hub are still under construction as the historic base transforms into the Air Force's European super base.

The work is part of the Department of Defense's largest ongoing construction project -- a $500 million boon for the base near Kaiserslautern, said Col. Carlos Cruz-Gonzalez, commander of the 435th Civil Engineer Group.

"The construction going on now is a continuation of the Rhein-Main Transition Program," the colonel from Bayamon, Puerto Rico, said.

The transition program resulted from a U.S.-German accord to return Rhein-Main Air Base, outside of Frankfurt, back to Germany by the end of 2005. In return, Germany allowed the Air Force to replicate the base's vital airlift mission at Ramstein and Spangdahlem Air Base, 80 miles northwest of here.

German agencies agreed to foot most of the bill for 37 new construction projects that would allow the bases to take on the new mission. Ramstein got 32 of the projects.

The breakdown of funds was $200 million for transition-related military construction, $200 million for the Kaiserslautern Military Community Center and $100 million for new military family housing.

Today, 22 projects -- started in 2003 -- are finished, the colonel said. Done are the new south runway and "hot cargo pad" for handling munitions and hazardous cargo. Also completed is the expansion of parking ramps for transiting wide-body jets and Ramstein's C-130 Hercules fleet. A huge and high-tech freight terminal, an expanded passenger terminal, flight kitchen and dormitories for enlisted Airmen have been built. There was also extensive road construction done to keep up with the growing changes, he said.

Currently, 10 projects are either underway or awaiting funding, Colonel Cruz-Gonzalez said. Under construction are a new hangar and a fitness center and annex.

"This construction has caused a true transformation of this base," the colonel said. "I got here in July 2003 -- Ramstein is a completely different base than when I arrived."

Still to come is the completion of several key projects, including new military family housing and the refurbishing of the base's north runway and extending it to 10,500 feet.

"The immediate goal in front of us is to get the north runway reconstruction project started," the colonel said. He expects that to happen early next year. "That'll give the base two mission-capable runways."

The colonel said the plan is to also build between 860 to 870 town homes at Ramstein and surrounding military communities for officers and enlisted Airmen. Some new officers and senior NCO housing has already been built in the large military community.

"In three weeks, we'll start construction here," Colonel Cruz-Gonzalez said. "These are what I call 100-year homes -- built to last. And they'll have just about all the amenities the Air Force now expects to be in family housing.

"When it's all said and done, the community will have more than 2,600 housing units," he said.

Another, more visible, goal is the completion of the Kaiserslautern Military Community Center, or KMCC. The center, on the base's south side, across from the passenger terminal, will include a new eight-story, 350-room hotel and a large shopping mall.

The hotel will have a restaurant on its ground floor and a sports bar. A new Army and Air Force Exchange Service store, boasting more than 150,000 square foot, will be the main attraction at the mall, the colonel said. The mall will also have 46 concessions shops, a food court, ticket and tour office, four theaters, bank and credit union, barber shop, sauna and morale, welfare and recreation facilities -- all under one roof.

"It will provide one-stop shopping" for just about anything a person might need, Colonel Cruz-Gonzalez said. "And MWR operations will include a retail sales store, equipment checkout -- even a two-story rock wall so people can practice their rock climbing."

The center will open in stages. Construction of the yet-to-be-named hotel should end in July. But it will not open until September because it will take about 60 days to furnish it and for businesses to move in. The colonel expects the mall to open "early next year."

Jeff Noorda is the KMCC project manager and works in a plans-filled office behind the center. The engineer from Kaysville, Utah, has never worked on a bigger and more involved project. He said there are more than 340 workers from across Europe representing 26 construction firms. Beside the center, they are adding 2,800 parking spots around the complex.

"What's most impressive to me is being able to bring so many people together to accomplish such a large task," he said.

But maybe even more impressive is the special care the Air Force took to make the center's construction efficient and environmentally friendly, the project manager said.

"Something unique about the structure is that we're going to put a green roof on the mall," Mr. Noorda said. "It's not going to be putting green grass -- it will look like a German prairie."

Mr. Noorda said the roof is the first of its kind the Air Force has built. About a 5-inch layer of "engineering soil" will cover the roof. It is a mixture of mostly crushed rocks on which only succulent plants -- which can live off little water -- will survive.

"The grass will grow wild and only have to be mowed once a year," he said. "It'll also help retain water, so there wouldn't be excessive runoff into local communities."

He said the dirt also doubles or triples the life of the roof because the sun's ultraviolet light cannot "beat down on the roof and crack it."

The community has eagerly awaited the completion of the construction. But neither Colonel Cruz-Gonzalez nor Mr. Noorda can say with certainty when everything will open. Both agree some projects are behind schedule, some by as much as three months.

"Yes, we are a little behind schedule -- we did plan to be done sooner," Mr. Noorda said. "We've slipped about three months now. But we're still hoping to open the mall in January."

An unusually harsh March is part of the blame for the delays, the colonel said. Some buildings -- including some housing -- are ready to open. But cold and rainy weather has hampered outside work like putting in sod.

"But we're certainly within budget," the colonel said.

Construction on other projects will continue for several years, with some projected through fiscal 2009 and beyond. While construction at the base will continue to keep the pace hectic, Colonel Cruz-Gonzalez said teamwork has helped make the transition smoother.

"Everyone in this community has worked to ensure all the disruption the construction generated never interfered with our mission," he said. "We haven't missed a beat."