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As Deploying US Troops Leave, Local Businesses Suffer - 2003-02-19

Across the country, tens of thousands of military personnel are emptying out of their bases, not knowing when they might return. For many towns around those bases, the impact will not only be an emotional one, but an economic one as well. As troops leave, apartments are left empty, and shops and restaurants are feeling the pinch.

The soldiers who know desert warfare best are at Fort Stewart in Georgia. At least they were until last month January. Almost all 16,500 have been deployed to the Persian Gulf. The neighboring town of Hinesville, population 30,000, already feels the effect of their departure.

It's apparent at the barber shops that line the entrance to the fort.

Jay Blocker, owner of a barber shop, said "Normally we probably average a hundred haircuts a day, now we're down to half that. And there are still people leaving, so it's going to get a little slower."

Soldiers from the post enter Jay Blocker's shop today in trickles and spurts. They talk to the barbers about their upcoming deployments, their love lives, and the unusually frigid weather it makes their desert fatigues seem especially out of place. Mr. Blocker looks down the line of red barber chairs half of them are empty.

"I had seven barbers, and about 3 or 4 months ago I saw it coming and I said, 'Guys, if you can find a job somewhere else, go see what you can do.' I didn't want to let anybody go, but I knew that I'd have to. So we're down to three now and basically we can kind of keep open until they get back. I just hope it's quick," he said.

All kinds of Hinesville businesses are feeling the economic crunch, not just those catering to men. Rita Watson runs a fancy dress shop on Main Street. She sells to brides, prom dates and another important clientele.

"All of the wives of the military men, and believe me, there's a lot of them," Ms. Watson said.

Usually the wives come in during October and November to buy formal dresses for the December military balls. But this season, Ms. Watson says, the base cancelled most of those dances because of the deployments.

"And that really put a hurting on us, as did the caterers and people who are associated with that," Ms. Watson said. Ms. Watson has been in business here for two decades. She remembers how hard it was the last time Fort Stewart emptied out, 12 years ago.

"It was a devastating time during the Gulf War, although we did survive, some business did not. We are all praying that we can stay afloat and keep our businesses going and pull together," she said.

The memory of the 1991 Gulf War hangs over this town. Thirty-five Hinesville businesses shut their doors for good, in part because back then, many families also left Hinesville. This time around, says realtor and former mayor Alan Brown, Fort Stewart and town officials are working hard to keep families and their paychecks here.

"The army and our community learned a lot from last time. Kids were not encouraged to stay, when I say kids I'm talking about the young military spouses, especially if they had a small child and didn't have nice housing, a lot of them packed up and went home to their parents The parents picked up the bills, it was an economic plus [for the spouses], and a lot them didn't have jobs. So the military learned from that, so they've tried to coach the spouses into staying here," Mr. Brown said. Dozens of local businesses are trying, too. They are giving discounts to families of deployed soldiers. Banks are offering free checking accounts. At a popular sandwich shop right off the post, kids now eat for free. In the last dozen years, Hinesville's population has grown by half. A good portion of the newcomers are non-military. That means thousands more shoppers and diners spending their money in local establishments.

Still, the military drives this local economy. After the Gulf War ended, the return of thousands of soldiers to Fort Stewart sparked an economic boom. Everyone in Hinesville hopes that part of history will repeat itself.