GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - The new Armed Forces Retirement Home shines like a gem, sitting peacefully on the beachfront in Gulfport. Inside, it's a bit of frenzy though, as workers run cables, move equipment and prepare to hang endless memorabilia.
"So, there's a lot to come together in a very short period of time, but we're excited," explained director Rick Heath.
Most of the activity right now is on the first floor, which is four-and-a-half acres of common space that boasts everything from a shuffle board and surround-sound theatre, to a full service lounge and state of the art bowling alley.
"And my understanding is they are quite competitive and have ongoing bowling tournaments and so forth. I think that will be a popular area," said Heath.
Other amenities include a saltwater pool, a sewing area, wood shop, artist studio and library. There's even a bank, a post office and a Hall of Honors that will eventually serve as a museum.
When asked if the residents had any idea what they were coming home to, Heath said, "They are seeing it on the Internet. They've seen pictures that we've taken, but I don't think until you walk in here and walk around, you really get the full picture."
Another improvement, living quarters are five times larger than they used to be. And each one has a stunning view of the Mississippi sound. A view they'll be trading for the Washington Monument in just a matter of weeks.
"They're telling me they can't wait to get home. This is home. Washington was okay, but they really can't wait to get back down south."
And Heath said he's really looking forward to welcoming them back. In fact, he has several surprises in store for the first group of residents when they return home October 4. Two more groups fly home October 25 and November 2.
As for staffing, the Armed Forces Retirement Home already has 16 federal employees on board. Five of those are former employees who worked at the home prior to Katrina. He said they hope to have 20 employees on staff by October 4.
"In addition to that contractors for dining services, housekeeping and maintenance. So the full contingency right now stands at about 50 to 60."
When asked if former employees are given priority in the hiring process, Heath explained, "Priority actually is something that's set by the Office of Personnel Management. And 10 point veterans, who are veterans who were injured or actually disabled to some extent, get first preference as long as they qualify for the position. And then people who have served some amount of time in the service are also given preference. But we have a wide range. We have people from the local community that we've hired. We've had former employees. We've had some veterans, some not veterans, so it's a pretty good mix."