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Flashy Army Recruitment Center in Pa. Mall Closing

by Kathy Matheson

PHILADELPHIA — The Army is shutting down a flashy, high-tech information and recruiting center inside a mall, calling it a successful marketing experiment even as it attracted protesters and video-game enthusiasts as much as potential soldiers.

This Aug. 25, 2009 file photo shows staff members at the Army Experience Center on a mock Humvee, part of an interactive simulator, in Philadelphia. The high-tech Army recruiting center inside a Philadelphia shopping mall is closing its doors as a two-year pilot program ends. The Army Experience Center is the only facility of its kind. The $12 million center in the Franklin Mills outlet mall will cease operations July 31, 2010. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File) The Army Experience Center will close July 31 after nearly two years at Philadelphia's Franklin Mills Mall, military officials said Thursday.

"It's been a great success," Army spokesman Brian Lepley said. "Basically it's mission accomplished."

The $12 million center opened in August 2008 with interactive video exhibits, nearly 80 video-gaming stations, a replica command-and-control center, conference rooms, and Black Hawk helicopter and Humvee combat simulators.

Since then, the center has hosted about 40,000 visitors and enlisted 236 recruits, Lepley said.

It was also repeatedly targeted for protests by those who said the Army's use of first-person-shooter video games desensitized visitors to violence and enticed teens into the military. Anyone over 13 could play games, though the most graphic ones were restricted to those 18 and older.

Lepley said the demonstrations had nothing to do with the decision to close the center, but activist Elaine Brower, of Staten Island, N.Y., said she was thrilled. She had been particularly galled by the center's mall location, between a skateboard park and an arcade.

"We really consider this a major victory for us," Brower said. "We are happy that they are not going to be in the mall."

Billed as more than a recruiting station, the center was designed to teach any curious mall shopper about the Army.

Officials initially said it might be replicated in other parts of the country. But as the recession set in and unemployment rose, enlistments increased and the Army began spending less on marketing.

Yet the Army Experience Center provided valuable information on how to connect with a generation used to getting information from computers and mobile devices, Lepley said.

Touch-screen kiosks showing the location of global Army posts and a "career navigator" displaying the service's jobs and salaries proved popular and will likely be used at recruiting stations and ROTC schools, Lepley said.

"We can't just print brochures anymore," he said.

The Army had closed five traditional recruiting stations when it opened the center. It's now planning to open a pair of more modern recruiting offices in nearby Levittown and northeast Philadelphia, Lt. Col. Chris Belcher said.

The offices will have some elements found at the Experience Center, including gaming stations and a more casual atmosphere with informal seating, as opposed to the old-fashioned desk with chairs on either side, Belcher said.

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