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The Army Experience Center: Mission accomplished?

The tactical operations center at the Army Experience Center in Philadelphia.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: The Franklin Mills shopping mall, not far from downtown Philadelphia, is an unlikely spot for the Army to have set up camp. But for two years that's where the Pentagon has deployed some of its most valuable assets. State of the art helicopter and Humvee simulators that cost millions of dollars. The Army says their market experience's been a success, even as they pack up their simulators and video game consoles and go home ahead of schedule.

From Philadelphia, Joel Rose reports.


Joel Rose :It's Friday night at the Army Experience Center in northeast Philadelphia. About a dozen young men sit in front of a wall of Xbox consoles, trying to beat each other at Halo 3, a popular first-person shooter game.

Video game: Flag stolen! Flag captured! Game over.

These guys have played in a lot of Halo tournaments here over the last two years. So there's a last-day-of-summer-camp vibe as the players turn in their controllers and say goodbye to the staff. But Army spokesman Brian Lepley isn't being sentimental when he declares the center's two-year mission a success.

Brian Lepley: We saw the Army Experience Center as a marketing technology lab.

Lepley says the Army Experience Center -- which cost about $22 million to build and operate -- was not a traditional recruiting station. Instead, it was a place for the Army to test out high-tech gadgets, including simulators designed to reproduce combat missions in helicopters and Humvees.

Lepley: Over 40,000 people came in and out of the Army Experience Center, got in a simulator for a Humvee, got in a Black Hawk simulator, played the video games, used the touch-screen technology to learn about the Army.

But if the center is such a success, critics wonder why it's closing.

Bill Deckhart: They're closing early. They still had a few months left on their lease, so we're very happy.

Bill Deckhart is a peace activist from nearby Bucks County, Pennsylvania. From the day the center opened, protesters held demonstrations and vigils. Deckhart objects to its location -- across from an indoor skate-park in a busy shopping mall -- and to the way the Army described the center's mission.

Deckhart: When the Army people would talk about it and say, "Oh it's not a recruiting center," at the end of their statement, they would take about how recruiting was doing. To me, it was very dishonest.

Deckhart and his fellow peace activists see the center's closing as a victory. But the Army denies that. They say it has more to do with changes in the U.S. labor market. When plans for the Army Experience Center were drawn up in 2007, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were raging, the economy was booming and the Army had a hard time making its recruiting goals.

RAND Corporation economist Beth Asch says that's no longer the case.

Beth Asch: Even though those wars continue, the economy is much worse and that helps recruiting. They've not only met recruiting goals, they've exceeded them. And they've exceeded them with higher quality people.

Spokesman Brian Lepley says the Army will probably make its goals again this year. Still, he says it won't be long before traditional recruiting stations get some of the high-tech tools the Army tested in Philadelphia.

Lepley: Our main target age to get people to join the Army is obviously 17 to 24. We have got to reach them the way that they entertain themselves. They all have cell phones. They all have a laptop, maybe another handheld. This is what they've grown up on. We can't ignore that.

Video games may be a cost-effective way to get young people's attention, but anti-war protester Cathy Leary does not think they're appropriate recruiting tools.

Cathy Leary: What they're teaching these children is not real. Where's the rest of the Army experience? Killing real people, being responsible for the death of another human being is totally different from pushing a button and playing a video game.

Leary and her fellow activists plan to celebrate when the Army Experience Center officially closes this weekend. Though it may be just a matter of time before Xbox consoles turn up at your local recruiting station.

In Philadelphia, I'm Joel Rose for Marketplace.

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