FORT POLK, La. -- The Joint Readiness Center and Fort Polk have waited expectantly for a new Main Post Exchange for months. Dreams become reality April 29 - the grand opening of the new exchange takes place at 9 a.m. Some concessions will open Monday, though, beginning with Starbucks at 6:30 a.m. and Subway and Burger King at 7 a.m.

"We call it a soft opening," said Michael Lanham, Fort Polk Army and Air Force Exchange Service general manager. "By opening some of the stores early, the staff will get a preview of the market before the grand opening."

The new exchange is a $27 million project and the building covers 131,000 square feet. The main store encompasses 67,000 square feet - an improvement over the previous location's 42,000 square feet.

Most of the concessions from the old exchange are reopening in the new space, and several new stores are being added. The food court will see the addition of Church's Chicken, Subway and new fountain drink choices.

During a preview tour of the facility April 13, Fort Polk spouses couldn't contain their smiles when they saw one of the additions: A Starbuck's coffee shop. "Starbuck's is going to be a favorite," said Lanham. "Everybody's excited about that."

The new building will also include a sports apparel store, a tactical gear vendor, GNC, Gamestop, a larger beauty salon and a meeting area in the food court. Military Clothing Sales will be relocated to the exchange and will expand their hours, to include Sundays.

There will also be an increase in parking space, but not immediately. "Parking will be tough for a while," said Lanham. "We anticipate having a new parking lot in the fall.

Once the old building is torn down we will build a new parking lot and resurface the old one. There will be an increase from about 200 spaces to more than 500."

The Main Post Exchange hours will remain the same initially, but may change depending on foot traffic and sales figures. The main store is adding more than floor space - there will be additional clothing offerings, a new service counter in the electronics department, the addition of the furniture store and a gun counter in sporting goods.

"We will increase the staffing and stock levels across the board," said Lanham. "The electronics counter will be full-service, and user friendly." With the new additions come new responsibilities - "the firearms sales staff will follow all federal, state and installation regulations," Lanham said.

Immediately upon entering the store, visitors sense the expansiveness of its new layout - ceilings are higher and walkways are wider.

"We have an open food court, wide aisles in the mall and expanded floor space all around," said Lanham. "I think customers will be excited about our offerings."

This month the quality of life for service members and their Families will increase. What is the AAFES message to the Fort Polk community' "Come shop," Lanham said. "We want customers to enjoy the facility - there was a lot of hard work that went into it and it's all for the benefit of the Soldiers and their Families. That's our mission."