The $12 million, one-of-a-kind Army Experience Center in Northeast Philadelphia will close July 31, ending a high-tech marketing program that exposed tens of thousands of people to the military and the possibility of service.
At the Franklin Mills center, visitors engage in mock missions aboard a full-size humvee and two massive helicopters equipped with Disney-grade simulators. The facility has touch-screen computers that detail Army job opportunities, salaries, educational benefits, and base locations around the world.
For all its costly gadgetry, the two-year pilot program was not intended to be permanent. It was designed to determine the most effective tools for public outreach, Army officials said.
Now, the center's time is up. The Army is expected to make an official announcement about the closing on Thursday. A news conference at the mall site is planned for Friday.
The center "did what it was supposed to do. It was a success," said Brian Lepley, a spokesman for the Army Accessions Command, headquarters for Army recruiting. "Senior Army leadership up and down the chain of command decided it would not be continued."
Parts of the center, such as the touch-screen computers, may turn up at recruiting stations. Some stations have expressed an interest in the simulators.
"The biggest part of this was using the technology," Lepley said. "Recruiters have used tricolor brochures, but that doesn't work with the digital generation. We have to keep up with the way people get their information."
The center tested computer technology "and we may get that into recruiting stations. There are hundreds of them across the country," he said. "But we'd have to figure out what the cost would be and how to field it."
The Army also could decide to put another such center in another area of the country.
Philadelphia's 14,500-square-foot facility opened in August 2008. At the time, said one top Army recruiting official, the Philadelphia metropolitan area and most of New Jersey had "the lowest propensity toward military service in the nation." New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles also were challenges. The center was viewed as a possible prototype.
Since then, recruitment in the region has increased, possibly because of the lack of jobs in the recession as well as the impact of the center. In the immediate Philadelphia area, recruitment is up at least 15 percent, the Army said.
"I believe the Army Experience Center has helped introduce people to the Army," said Lt. Col. Harry T. Woodmansee, commander of the Mid-Atlantic Recruiting Battalion at Lakehurst, N.J.
"It's put the Army in touch with the public," he said. "It's a fun, easy, hands-on community outreach. I think it will have a lasting effect."
More than 40,000 people have visited the center, Lepley said.
"It wasn't a recruiting station," he said. "If the kids showed up, brought their parents in, and played video games, it still exposed them to the Army. It was an outreach to the American public."
At least 236 people joined the Army through the center.
Antiwar protesters staged several demonstrations at the site, sometimes drawing hundreds who objected to the simulators, which they said glorified killing and presented stereotypes of enemy forces.
The Army's lease at Franklin Mills is up on Nov. 30. Closing the center early will allow for dismantling, packing, and shipping of its furnishings and equipment. The Army Recruiting Command is developing a plan to reopen recruiting stations in the area.
"The Army Experience Center validated a lot of our assumptions about what the public knows and feels about the Army and how to help them connect with the Army," Lepley said. "It helped us learn to reach younger Americans on their terms with relevant technology innovations."
On Wednesday, Jorden Tracey, 16, a 10th grader from Northeast Philadelphia, dropped by the center after school.
"It was fun. The simulators are fun," said Jorden, who said he is not considering a military career. "I only come for entertainment."
Another 10th grader, Rossini Pierre, 16, of Northeast Philadelphia, said he thought about joining the service, "but my parents say it's dangerous."
Some visitors have made the choice to serve - even if it's not with the Army.
"I come for entertainment and I come to learn," said Barry Jones, 18, a member of Junior ROTC at his high school who lives in the city's Mount Airy section. "After college, I want to go to the Coast Guard."