ATLANTA — Some things, like bombing exercises shattering enough to knock pictures off the wall, are just part of life in a military town. Others, like massive troop deployments and war, are thankfully less common.
But as the nation girds for a potential war against Iraq, the departure of troops to the front lines is now frighteningly real in towns all across the South. Beyond the obvious toll on families, deployment can be devastating for businesses. Just ask those who struggled through the last Gulf War 12 years ago.
"Fayetteville, N.C., was a ghost town," said a resident who worked at Belk’s. "My hours were slashed from 40 to 14 a week. Many stores closed early every day because nobody was here. You could shoot a shotgun down the mall food court and not hit a soul."
Locals in three major military towns are hoping this time may be better. So far, while it’s still early, business is holding up fairly well.
While thousands of troops are already deployed, hundreds more rotate in daily to military bases throughout the South. Those returning from Afghanistan and other hot spots, along with reservists called to active duty and training, are taking up the slack left by the departed soldiers. More wives, who typically go home to stay with family during their husbands’ deployments, are staying put this time, partially because the military is offering financial and support services as incentives.
So far, the mood is upbeat. Many locals, convinced that any war will be short, are looking forward to returning troops, who might celebrate by spending money.
Below, WWD looks at how three Southern towns are preparing for a potential war:
"We’re the number-one military town in the country," said George Breece, president of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce. "When the world dials 911, the phone answers here."
Unabashedly proud, Breece said Fort Bragg, the nation’s largest army base, and adjacent Pope Airforce Base, are the combined home to 55,000 military personnel, plus dependents. Around one-third of the area’s troops were deployed overseas by mid-February. The military brings $5.2 billion worth of business annually into Fayetteville’s economy, with $1 billion more in military-related civilian salaries."We feel it immediately," he said. "It’s the talk in coffee shops. We know it will affect the economy, but it’s a small price to pay for freedom. It’s the people we care about."
Breece said real estate is suffering, especially rental properties. He knows an owner of a 210-unit apartment complex who had 40 lease termination requests in recent weeks.
Deployment has not yet infiltrated the retail sector, though. On a bright Wednesday in February, the only visible difference in Cross Creek Mall, closest to the base, and any other mall is the presence of several uniformed men. While military uniforms are prohibited off duty, the rule is rarely enforced.
Cross Creek has as anchors Belk’s, Rich’s, J.C. Penney and Sears and contains such specialty stores as Wet Seal, Aeropostale, Lerner’s, Casual Corner and Victoria’s Secret. One shopper, Sgt. Barry Morrison, just returned from his final deployment in Afghanistan. Both he and his wife Erica, who is also in the military, have been sent abroad six times.
"We saved $16,000 during those months, and now we’re going to spend it, on a Subaru SUV for me and a Ford Expedition for her,"he said. "They can’t touch me now, I’m here to stay. " His wife also likes to buy clothes, mostly at Wet Seal. He favors athletic shoes from Foot Locker.
Retailers are still enjoying the first and the fifteenth of each month — paydays at the base, typically their biggest days.
"And days in between are big return days, when they realize they’ve over-spent," said a manager of a nationwide young women’s and men’s wear chain, who requested anonymity. Military personnel make up 80 percent of the store’s customers. January sales rose 16 percent over last year, after similar December numbers. Her young customer is worldly and appreciates edgy merchandise, unlike in other homogenous Southern towns, she said. Business is good now, but she is far from complacent.
"The effect hasn’t really hit yet, but it will," she said, adding that, in her view, it’s a "misconception" to think the war will be short and over in six months.Dineen Morton-Tarplee, store manager of Petite Sophisticate, had a 3 percent January sales increase, but a traffic increase of 12 percent.
"Wives are out more, mall walking," she said. "And we’re getting a boost from National Guard reservists who have been called up."
Morton-Tarplee’s husband of 19 years shipped out in January to the Middle East for his fourth deployment. She attends monthly military family support group meetings, and notes an increase in similar support services over the last Gulf situation.
"We’re told it’s our responsibility to keep business going and support our local economy," she said.
Like other wives, she looks for ways to relieve stress during deployments. Working in retail, she buys clothes at a discount, but buying clothes doesn’t revive her spirits like her new ritual — weekly manicures and pedicures at a day spa.
Renaissance European Day Spa, a five-year-old Fayetteville business, has a two-week waiting list for appointments. January sales increased 10 percent, with wives treating themselves and husbands buying gift certificates before leaving.
"Rather than shopping, women are taking care of themselves, with a massage or other treatment," said Barbara Gikaganm, administrator.
Adele Snook, whose husband is on a six-month deployment, is the concierge at Renaissance. With extra monthly income from separation pay, she indulges in spa services and splurges occasionally on shoes and handbags.
"I’m not a clothes person," she said. "But I shop Neiman Marcus online, or go to Raleigh to Nordstrom’s. My biggest treat recently was a Burberry scarf bought online from Neiman’s."
Within 20 miles of Fort Benning, Columbus, Ga., with a population of 190,000, is a picturesque mid-western-Georgia town on the Chattoohoochee River. As headquarters of AFLAC insurance and other financial businesses, Columbus is more diversified than just 20 years ago, when the military and now-defunct textile mills drove its economic engine.
Fort Benning brings in $90 million a month — one-fifth of the local economy. With 33,000 active duty soldiers from Fort Benning, the town has 55,000 military personnel, including dependents. By February, 3,500 soldiers were deployed, but with daily rotations including reservists and trainees and its diversified economy, local businesses are optimistic."The military was almost 30 percent of the economy, now it’s 13 to 15 percent," said Mike Gaymon, president of the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce. "During the Gulf War, big-ticket purchases, cars and televisions were down, but consumables were OK. This time, the army is giving [financial and support service] incentives for wives to stay here. They don’t go home to mom — mom comes here."
One military-related Columbus business is booming. At Ranger Joe’s, a clothing and supplies retailer for military and law enforcement, sales are up 32 percent since Sept 11, 2001. More than 80 percent of its inventory is apparel, and 30 percent of its customers are women, buying for themselves or for male family members. Inventory includes non-government issue high tech moisture-resistant jackets, shirts and socks, mostly from private label resources.
Ranger Joe’s has a 12,000-square-foot Columbus store and a 7,000-square-foot store near Fort Stewart in Hinesville, Ga., where 18 seamstresses sew thousands of patches a week onto uniforms for soldiers. The web site alone does $2 million a year. One million catalog mailings yearly generate 700 customers a day, according to Paul Vorhees, owner.
Vorhees employs many army wives and, having survived the last Gulf War, he predicted less economic damage for Columbus than other military towns.
"In Desert Storm, many soldiers didn’t want to go," said Vorhees. "This time, after we were attacked, nobody is in doubt. Civilians, even those that don’t support the war, support the soldiers."
Columbus-based fast-food restaurateur Todd Shuster owns 59 Burger Kings clustered near Columbus in Georgia and Alabama. Activity at Fort Benning is helping business, although sales are primarily advertising-driven. In recent months, business is up 5 to 6 percent for his stores.
"Fort Benning is bringing family in. Wives may not buy big items, but they still go to fast-food restaurants, especially with kids," he said.
Rick McKnight, the owner of McKay’s, a 22-year-old women’s clothing boutique, and the adjoining Kiddie Shoppe, has cultivated a civilian clientele recently, after once relying totally on military business. Recently, McKnight noticed more military wives shopping the children’s store. While January women’s sales were flat, the Kiddie Shoppe increased 13 percent."With husbands gone, women feel angst. Buying for the kids helps them feel better," said McKnight. "They’re definitely more interested in spending for the kids or the home than for themselves."
Heather Conkle, 29, is an example. With her husband on a six-month deployment to Kuwait, she lives on base with two children, ages six and three. Lately, she spends money on "care packages" she sends once a week to her husband. She shops for toiletries, snacks and treats at Wal-Mart and Target, and looks for deals online from sites such as CVS/Pharmacy.
As a part-time volunteer for the Red Cross, she spends most of her personal clothing budget on work clothes. She shops Dillard’s, although she calls department store shopping "frustrating." Her favorite specialty store is Ann Taylor Loft. Both are in nearby malls.
She now spends more on clothes for her children, at the Kiddie Shoppe or the Children’s Place, along with sporting goods, video games and visits to Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant. "It’s not wise parenting, and I guess I’m spoiling them, but it’s hard with Dad gone," she said.
She also buys home items, from paint to window treatments, from Home Depot. Like many of her military wife friends, she enjoys sewing and crafts, and shops Michael’s and Hobby Lobby for supplies. Regular hair salon appointments are more significant now, at Bliss, a salon she recently discovered.
"Time to myself is the best treat now. I’d like to take advantage of more spa services, something I’ve never done before," she said.
With three bases within a 40-mile radius, the military brings in $2 billion annually to Savannah’s economy, double the $1 billion from tourism. About one-third of the 45,000 troops at Fort Stewart, Hunter Army Airfield and the Beaufort Naval Air Station, have been deployed, according to Bill Hubbard, chief executive officer of the Savannah Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau.
Hubbard said Savannah is better prepared now than during Desert Storm, which had a "huge effect" on business. The community has brought in new businesses, such as a Chrysler/Daimler plant, and new programs to attract tourism. Savannah’s economy grew 5 percent in 2002, compared with a 17 percent statewide decline, said Hubbard.Though deployment will take a toll, he said, the bigger concern is the future of the bases, which may be shut completely in the next few years. Having survived three rounds of scrutiny under the Base Realignment and Closure Act of 2001, the area’s three military bases will be examined again in 2005.
"The military wants less real estate and more money in weapons," said Hubbard. "The problems we see now with deployment could be permanent, if bases close or are ‘mothballed’ so that no new industry can develop on them."
The impact from the current deployment will be felt first in the area’s rental housing market and will trickle down to automobile dealers, restaurants and retail, said Hubbard.
Retail is starting to decline. At Oglethorpe Mall, just 500 yards from Hunter Army Airfield, and within 40 miles of the other two bases, sales during Desert Storm declined from $250 to around $190 per square foot. Today, the mall averages $310 per square foot. The mall has such anchors as Sears and J.C. Penney.
"Who knows where it will go this time?" said Phil McConnell, the mall’s general manager.
After a "phenomenal" 2002, with November sales up 18 percent and December up 20 percent, January, normally a strong month, had only a 5 percent increase. McConnell said department stores saw the biggest drop in big-ticket items and electronics. Moderate apparel was hurt more than high-end, he said.
A partner in a national jewelry chain at Oglethorpe Mall who wished anonymity, said January sales dropped 9 percent, after a record December, when sales increased 40 percent, (or $350,000) over December 2001.
"In December, we were flooded with military men buying engagement rings before being sent off," he said. "In Desert Storm, jewelry dropped off, but when the troops came back, we got it all back. It was like Christmas in March."