More than 15 months have passed since the Army & Air Force Exchange Service and ServiceStar Development Company broke ground on the site of Freedom Crossing at Fort Bliss, which is scheduled to celebrate its grand opening Nov. 5.
Since then, much like the rest of the immense construction undertakings on post, plans turned into jobs - 300 locally here at Bliss - and the men and women filling those jobs have created change.
Maj. Gen. Bruce Casella, AAFES' commanding general, said this particular change has represented a special time in history for his staff and employees who serve 8.7 million customers worldwide.
"This project is very exciting because it will greatly improve the quality of life for servicemembers and family members stationed at Fort Bliss or living in the surrounding communities," said Casella. "I'm proud to lead the Army & Air Force Exchange Service. The Exchange has supported servicemembers around the world for over 115 years. Our motto is 'we go where they go,' meaning when Soldiers and Airmen deploy, we deploy with them."
In terms of retail opportunities at Bliss, to those who work, visit and live on post, the physical change may be obvious by this point. Bliss Soldiers, their families and Army civilians traveling on main post have seen a construction site, which spans approximately 1 million square feet, rapidly evolve into an exchange complex with an energy-efficient construction makeup, along with a combination of stores found nowhere else on a military installation. The exchange complex is poised to offer a 21st century shopping experience for a 21st century fighting force.
With all of the retail packed into Freedom Crossing, Casella said the successes of the project will not end when the customer reaches the cash register of one of the almost currently 40 stores confirmed to be part of the Bliss community.
"The Exchange alone has grown from 85,000 to 217,000 square feet," said Casella, "but beyond a massive Exchange, Freedom Crossing will provide dozens of unique offerings and amenities, including a first-run movie theater, a children's play area, outdoor dining patios, shaded landscaped areas, outdoor seating, an outdoor fireplace, an interactive fountain, free wireless Internet access and a great lawn for community events, concerts and celebrations throughout the year."
With Freedom Crossing at Fort Bliss, AAFES may be changing how Bliss families shop and dine on post, but the success of the facility itself could be a vehicle for change on military installations far from the Southwest. Casella said this venture into unchartered waters, where national, regional and local retailers will have the opportunity to privately operate within a shopping center on a military installation, is a pilot program. Where it may be the first of its kind, it won't be the last.
"Freedom Crossing at Fort Bliss is a bold step for the Army & Air Force Exchange Service and will serve as the model for several future projects," said Casella. "In progress already are plans for similar retail developments at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Fort Sam Houston. Freedom Crossing at Fort Bliss is designed to meet the needs of this increasing footprint while serving as a model for future retail developments on military installations."
As it has been since the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission Report, change remains in the air at Bliss. In terms of what Freedom Crossing will mean for the post, the El Paso community as a whole and installations AAFES serves worldwide, Casella said he felt this change will assuredly be a good one.
"Freedom Crossing at Fort Bliss will enhance the lifestyle of Army personnel, military families, National Guardsmen, Reservists and retirees stationed at Fort Bliss or living in the El Paso area. Offering convenience and supporting a strong sense of community, Freedom Crossing at Fort Bliss will be a haven for families and friends to get together, shop, dine, enjoy entertainment and have fun."
For more information on Freedom Crossing at Fort Bliss, visit www.freedomcrossingatfortbliss.com. To learn more about AAFES, visit www.shopmyexchange.com.