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Troops’ absence hits local economies

In military towns across the nation, business owners are struggling as the deployment of troops to Iraq has drained away many of their regular customers.
Tim Curtis waits for customers at his barber shop in Clarksville, Tenn. With many soldiers from nearby Fort Campbell in Iraq, business owners in this military town are struggling.
Tim Curtis waits for customers at his barber shop in Clarksville, Tenn. With many soldiers from nearby Fort Campbell in Iraq, business owners in this military town are struggling.
/ Source: The Associated Press

There’s barely enough work to sustain George Hagenbuch’s auto glass business since more than 20,000 soldiers at nearby Fort Campbell were deployed to Iraq nine months ago.

“Business dropped off 75 percent,” Hagenbuch said recently during a stop at a convenience store off 101st Airborne Division Parkway. “Nobody here wants to spend money and car dealers are not selling many cars, so it has slowed me down.”

Hagenbuch is among the business owners struggling as the deployment of troops from the Army post on the Tennessee-Kentucky state line continues. And Clarksville is just one of many military communities across the country in such straits.

At A&B Barber Shop in Fayetteville near Fort Bragg, N.C., Chris Smith said his business has fallen about 40 percent since thousands of soldiers were deployed. “We need them back home,” Smith said.

Mike Laughlin, who owns Hope Mills Florist near the post, said that when the Persian Gulf War began in 1991 he owned a year-old carpet company and business “totally stopped.”

He got out of that business and opened the flower shop. His business fell off significantly when troops first were deployed to Iraq, but “now things are cycling back. I think everyone found out this is going to be an enduring thing,” he said.

In Colorado Springs, Colo., near Fort Carson, the metropolitan area is expected to lose $311 million in income as a result of the deployment of more than 11,000 troops.

“People are spending less money. I think it’s the volume of people that are gone and people are saving more of their disposable income,” said Clay Miller, owner of Platte Ave Tire and Automotive in Colorado Springs.

In the Clarksville metro area, which includes parts of Kentucky, some businesses are cutting hours and others are laying off employees.

Suk Yi Ki, who owns a liquor store across from the post in Oak Grove, Ky., said, “I can’t even pay the utilities” because business has fallen off about 90 percent. “I’m just waiting for the soldier people to come back.”

Ron Cannon said his Clarksville tire and auto service store has lost half its business since the troops left. He hasn’t fired anyone, but he decided not to replace two workers who left and he’s trying to cut expenses.

This situation is worse than during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Cannon said, because the soldiers weren’t gone as long then.

About 23,000 soldiers usually live on or near the Army post. The Clarksville-Hopkinsville, Ky., statistical area has about 235,000 people, including roughly 105,000 in the city of Clarksville.

There have been some mitigating factors — soldiers returning from Iraq for two-week breaks and the reserves brought in to keep Fort Campbell operating have helped sales at Riner Furniture, according to salesman Greer Johnson.

During this deployment, most spouses have stayed in the area rather than heading home to their families. “Nobody really expected them to be gone as long as this,” he said.

And disruptions caused by deployments aren’t unexpected.

Terry King, a buyer at Grandpa’s hardware and sporting goods store, said that in 41 years of business “we’ve been through this before. Sure, it has some impact, and I can’t say it doesn’t hurt our sales some, but we’ve survived rather well.”

The store sells soldiers and the military some of the equipment they need, ranging from nuts and bolts to heavy-duty cargo boxes and binoculars, holsters and boots. It also has plenty of non-military sales, providing colorful scrubs for nurses, for example.

“It just depends on the type of business you’re involved in. If you depend strictly on the military people, you’re going to be hurting right now,” King said.

Joe Pitts, an aide to Clarksville Mayor Don Trotter, said the city “has weathered this fairly well so far,” although businesses closest to the post are hurting the most. There’s a significant increase in housing starts over this time last year, and sales tax collections have remained steady, he said.

But if the soldiers remain away for much longer, things could change.

“The biggest concern we have is what the impact will be on families and the decisions they make. Will they continue to live here and wait for their spouses to return, or will they move back home?”