Near the geographic center of Texas lies Killeen. Located less than an hour north of Austin and some two hours south of the outskirts of Dallas, this small easygoing city contrasts dramatically with its better-known big neighbors. However, if you take a chance and stop by for a visit, you’ll find that there is much more to the town than appears on the surface and a real great place to live and work.
Reaching some 1,300 residents by 1914, Killeen’s population remained stable until the start of World War II when Camp Hood was establishment by the US Army. This large military training center drastically changed the character of Killeen with the military buying over 300 local farms and ranches northwest of town to create the enormous base, basically ending most of Killeen’s agricultural-based economy. However, the new military camp brought in tens of thousands of new soldiers, contractors, construction workers, laborers, and their families, making Killeen a military boomtown overnight and taking the economy in an entirely new direction.
After the war ended, Camp Hood was later re-designated as Fort Hood and continued to expand in size and in the number of units stationed there. Today, the massive base has nearly 65,000 soldiers and family members and serves as home for the Headquarters III Corps, First Army Division West, the 1st Cavalry Division, 13th Sustainment Command, 89th Military Police Brigade, 504th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, 85th Civil Affairs Brigade, 1st Medical Brigade, and the 69th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, as well as several smaller units.
Due to the military’s long-time presence, Killeen’s economy has remained solid and its population has continued to slowly grow. Currently, the city boasts a population of more than 153,000 residents, many of these military veterans and retirees. One of these vets is Dennis Eakin who moved here shortly after serving two tours in Vietnam and finishing college in the early 1970s. A very successful salesman, entrepreneur, and developer, Eakin has made a good name for himself in the city while continuing to be very active in supporting the local military community since his arrival. Initially starting in the insurance business, he later became a major player in the local automotive sales industry. Last year he made the decision to expand his business into professional car washing, something he has been planning to do for a long time. Since everyone in our industry has an interesting backstory of how they ended up where they are, and exactly how they got into the car wash business, here is Eakin’s in his own words:
“Originally from the suburbs of Detroit, MI, I decided to become a helicopter pilot right after graduating high school in 1965. The U.S. Army at that time had a program where if you volunteered for the draft, they would guarantee you aviation school. Successfully completing Rotary Wing Flight School in 1967, I then was ordered to Vietnam to pilot a Bell UH-1 Iroquois, better known as a “Huey.” Assigned to a forward operating base near Danang in the northern part of South Vietnam, my missions consisted of transporting troops to and from the battlefront, evacuation of the wounded, and resupply. During this first tour my aircraft took a total of 54 hits from the enemy.
“After a stint as flight instructor at Fort Walters, TX, I volunteered for CH-47 Chinook Helicopter School even though it meant doing another tour over in Vietnam upon graduation. My assignment on this second tour was as a maintenance officer and to test fly any Chinook that we worked on to ensure it was ready to return to action.
“Eight months later I was offered an early release from the Army and spent the next two years going to college at the University of Texas Arlington and Southern Methodist University. While there I worked part-time selling life insurance for the Non-Commissioned Officers Association. Finding myself really good at it, I was later assigned Fort Hood in Killeen as my territory and moved my family there. I stayed in the insurance business until 1987 when I left to become partners with a friend in the purchase of a VW, Mazda, and Jeep dealership there in Killeen. Later, in 1994, we opened a new Kia dealership in town. Buying out my partner two years later, I continued to run and expand the business up till today.
“Over the years, another business venture of mine has been purchasing properties in the Killeen area to both sell and develop. During this time, I acquired one particular large corner lot at a major intersection right down the street from my Kia dealership. Holding onto it for many years as the city continued to grow in that direction, I finally realized that this site would be a perfect location for the major car wash facility that I have always dreamed of with plenty of property left over to develop several other businesses that would help pay for it and make it a more viable ‘destination location.’ Seeing car washing as the ideal business concept to tie into my Kia and used-car dealerships, my plan is to offer monthly wash memberships to customers at my dealerships as part of the sales packages, as well as offer wash services and memberships to other local auto dealerships and special promotional offers to our highly valued local military community.
“Reputation means everything to me and to my business. I have always believed that a great reputation is the end result of consistent superior service and producing an excellent product for your customers, one that keeps them coming back again and again. I plan on making U.S. Patriots Car Wash exactly that type of brand. My goal is to make this new business the most successful and highest quality car wash facility in the Killeen/Fort Hood market, and the way to do that is simple: consistently deliver a superior product and treat your customers like family.”
With the site selected and business concept firmly in place, Eakin made the decision to proceed with the project last year. He first contacted Rider Wash Systems in San Antonio, who in-turn recommended our design firm. Having designed hundreds of car washes throughout the country over the last 20 years, including some 40 in Texas alone, we specialize in exactly the type of large wash projects that Dennis was looking for. Our first conversation together was very positive and being from Texas myself (Houston), and a fellow military veteran (Navy), we found that we had many things in common and got along very well. Quickly seeing eye-to-eye on the direction of the project, together we came up with the idea to make it a patriotic/military-themed car wash, something that would appeal directly to the local military community. We also decided to “go big” with a longer-than-usual wash tunnel and a very large number of free-vacuum spaces. Providing as many family-friendly features at the facility as possible was also an important aspect of the design since military towns always have lots of young children. Finally, the exterior building design had to strongly reflect the patriotic/military theme with an interesting highly colorful façade packed full of exciting architectural features and themed signage to get the customers in the door and make it stand-out from the competition.
The site selected for the new car wash project is a large corner parcel on the east-bound frontage road of the Central Texas Expressway and Rosewood Drive adjacent to a major overpass on the eastern side of the city and directly across the highway from the old city airport. Strategically located less than 1,000 feet away from Eakin’s Kia dealership, the rectangular-shaped 4.42-acre parcel was far larger than required for the new car wash project, so he decided to divide the parcel into 4 lots of various sizes with the car wash slated to be placed along the long western edge of the site. A gas station chain quickly became very interested in the corner, a business that would tie nicely into the new car wash and provide synergy to the development.
The only major design issues to make this work were the limited width of the property and the numerous utility and access easements located around the site. At only 358 feet in width, it meant that the wash layout had to be rather tight so as to allow enough room for the gas station to fit. Luckily the sitehad small building setbacks and landscape buffers allowing it to work. The final design requirements were that all four lots had to have cross-access to one another, as well as allow fire and garbage trucks to traverse around the site unimpeded. The site layout also had to provide easy access to both city streets.
With the basic site layout complete, the next item to achieve was the design of the car wash building itself. Functionality of design is always paramount in car wash projects and key to ensuring an efficient and highly successful wash. However, making the building highly attractive with lots of friendly eye-candy and bright colors is just as important to attract customers and provide the proper ambiance. The trick is to balance these often conflicting design paths in a way that complements the other without compromising the final completed product.
Due to the long-narrow shape of the site, the wash building had to be placed perpendicular to the frontage road facing the Central Texas Expressway in order for it to work. Next, we established the best locations for stacking, loading, and exiting in relation to the wash tunnel, followed by where the free-vacuum spaces needed to be placed so as to be seen from the street, and, finally, the rest of the building. It ended up being a little tight, but luckily the width was just enough to make everything work out well with very few compromises. Length of the building was no issue since we had up to 558 feet if we needed it, but we wanted to save as much land as possible to create another large lot on the south side of the parcel. Due to the need for customers to comfortably make a 180-degree turn to enter the tunnel from the pay lanes, and to allow at least three to four vehicles to stack after exiting the tunnel, we decided on a conveyor length of 135 feet as the best-fit for the site.
Although designed as an express-exterior wash model, we included a good-sized customer lobby with two restrooms, vending area, and large windows looking into the tunnel for our customers’ families to relax in. The last item left to design was the exterior building elevations. Crucial to the overall success of the new wash, the design had to be striking and colorful with an interesting exterior façade that strongly reflects the patriotic/military theme, yet still remain cost-effective and not blow the budget. We achieved these requirements with simple interesting geometric shapes, metal siding and roofs, several large covered colonnades, split-face block walls and base, numerous large windows and clearstories, and a tall tower architectural feature towards the front. We brought it all together by painting the building red, white, and blue (and shades of ‘gray’ on the split-face and steel siding), and using recognizable military aviation symbols in the signage and façade decorations. The numerous vacuum arches will also be covered in bright red fabric awnings to continue the theme and make it even more colorful. The final touch will be the installation of three large flagpoles near the front of the site to display the U.S., Texas, and military flags. Once completed, the new U.S. Patriots Car Wash should be quite striking and prove to be highly appealing to both the military and civilian community alike.
With thousands of soldiers and their families moving in and out of the city each year coming from all over the country and overseas, Killeen is a diverse place with citizens from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. Due to all of the new arrivals, there is always someone new to meet every day of the year, which is nice socially, but from a business perspective quite challenging, especially so in the car wash business. Not being able to rely on a steady long-term local customer base means you have to win-over new customers every single day to stay in business and be successful.
Building an attractive, well-maintained quality car wash facility with a great management team is only part of the equation. The real secret to succeed in a military boomtown like Killeen is a have a great reputation. With that firmly established, your satisfied customers become your personal marketing team, spreading the word to all the new arrivals of exactly where to go for a great wash. This fits perfectly with Eakin’s business philosophy and overall project concept when he started developing the U.S. Patriots Car Wash. With his 35 years of sales and marketing expertise in the automotive industry, he has all of the knowhow to succeed and should do extremely well. The new wash is currently under construction and should be completed in July of 2023.
Christopher Crawford is with Car-Wash-Architect.com. He has written numerous feature articles for this magazine over the years concerning the design and construction of new and renovated car washes projects. You can visit his company’s website for more information about the services they offer, or call them at (561) 212-3364.