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FORT?POLK, La. -- Aug. 4 marked a big day on the U.S. Army's and Fort Polk's calendar as the post became the first of 10 Army installations to have a Holiday Inn Express branded hotel.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony featured guests from Actus Lend Lease, InterContinental Hotel Group, the Office of the Secretary of the Army, local communities and Fort Polk leadership. The event signaled Fort Polk's completion of phase one of the Army's Privatization of Army Lodging, or PAL, program.

Actus Lend Lease provides the capital for the PAL program and actually owns the new hotels, while InterContinental Hotel Group operates the hotels.

Col. Francis Burns, Fort Polk garrison commander, began the festivities by explaining the PAL program to those who braved the 100-degree temperatures to witness the historic event.

"Fort Polk was selected to be part of a pilot program for the privatization of lodging in the Army," Burns said. "Of the almost 17,000 rooms in the Army inventory, more than 80 percent needed to be replaced or renovated. The cost was expected to be more than $1 billion to the Army and would take about 20 years to complete."

Burns said those costs and the time needed to complete renovations led to the inception of PAL.

"The PAL goal was to improve the Army's transient lodging facilities throughout the United States, Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico," Burns said. "The PAL program is a partnership between the Army and private industry to improve the condition of on-post lodging facilities and provide for their long-term sustainment. We're leveraging private capital and best-business practices today in order to sustain lodging for the next 50 years. It's really about standardization and delivering a quality product."

Burns said the day's ceremony completed phase one of the three-stage plan for Fort Polk. Included in the renovations and improvements at the Holiday Inn Express, formerly the Magnolia Guest House, are complimentary hot breakfasts served daily, a television lounge, business center, guest laundry facilities and courtesy shuttle service.

Every room contains new furnishings, new bedding and linens, flat screen televisions and granite vanities in the bathrooms. Other notable upgrades include a renovated lobby and front desk, new carpeting, new window treatments, upgrades to air conditioning in guest rooms, fire alarm system replacements and guardrail and railing repairs.

"Phase two is Cypress Inn," Burns said. "We've got about 70 rooms we started renovating that should be complete in November or December. It will have the same Holiday Inn Express standards that you see here and we'll be the first Army installation to have two Holiday Inn Express branded hotels."

Phase three will be the construction of a 200-room Staybridge Inn Suites, Burns said. Groundbreaking is set for 2012 or 2013 and the hotel will be designed for extended stay business, recreation and vacation.

"Phase three ends when the swimming pool for the hotel is in place and the rooms are occupied, about nine months after groundbreaking," he said.

Pointing to the advantages of having a recognized hotel brand on post, Burns said he was reminded of a comment provided to him by the wife of newly assigned Soldier to Fort Polk.

"She told me, 'We prefer to stay on post when arriving as we start to become part of the community. We also prefer to stay in a known chain hotel,'" Burns related. "IHG and Holiday Inn Express combines the best of both."  

Charles Parker, executive general manager of development and public private partnerships for Actus Lend Lease, said the day was, "a celebration of a milestone of teamwork and partnership. Our mission is to improve the quality of on-post stays for Soldiers and their families and government travelers through upgrades and improvements at 10 U.S. Army installations across PAL group A. As (Installation Management Command commanding general) Lieutenant General (Rick) Lynch says, our mission is to give Soldiers and their families a quality of life that is commensurate with their quality of service. We're committed to that."

PAL group A also includes Fort Rucker, Ala.; Fort Leavenworth, Kan.; Fort Riley, Kan.; Fort Sill, Okla.; Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Sam Houston, Texas; Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz.; Fort Myer, Va.; and Fort Shafter and Tripler Army Medical Center, Hawaii.

With the progress on Fort Polk, Parker said, "We are creating an entirely new hotel experience on military installations."

Rhonda Hayes, chief, Capital Ventures Directorate, Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army (Installations and Housing), recalled her husband's early days in the military when moves were made difficult by substandard lodging.

"It's great to partner with a company like Actus Lend Lease who can show us how the private sector does it, and be creative and take an old property that has a few challenges and turn it into something that we can all be proud of," she said. "We look forward to continuing the relationship."

Bob Chitty, senior vice president of corporate investment for IHG, was last to speak. He said this has been a four or five year process for his company.

"After all of this time, it's nice to see our brand on this building," he said. "Fort Polk is a great example of what is happening across Group A assets. Even before renovations began, we added amenities to make our customers more comfortable. This is the first branded Holiday Inn Express in the United States Army. That's big."

Following the remarks, a ribbon was cut to officially mark the occasion. That was followed by a walk-through of rooms and a reception in the hotel lobby.

Kathy Yarbrough, wife of Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk commander Brig. Gen. James Yarbrough, attended the ceremony. She said she was impressed with the renovated rooms.

"These are very nice," she said. "The furniture is wonderful, the amenities are great and I believe our Soldiers and their families will be pleased with what is available to them."

Yarbrough said she remembered when her family was first starting out in the military nearly 30 years ago."It would have been nice to have such a wonderful place to stay when arriving at a new assignment," she said. "I'm proud of what we are able to provide the Fort Polk family."

Chandra Badola, general manager of the Holiday Inn Express, said one aspect of IHG employment practices is the preference given to those affiliated with the military.

"We primarily hire military spouses," he said. "They can come by here and pick up an application or go online to and apply."