With troops gone, a base town hibernates

Sierra Vista, Ariz., is leaning on its communal bonds as massive troop deployment saps the town's businesses.

From the windows of his Enchanted Dragon tattoo parlor, Dan Thomas has an unobstructed view of the main gates of Fort Huachuca, an Army intelligence base in southern Arizona.

Few dispute that the fort is the primary economic engine for this sprawling desert town of 40,000 near the US-Mexico border. But like other Sierra Vista businessmen, Mr. Thomas, an amiable, bearded man whose arms display sweeping purple and blue artistry, claims he's not worried about his clients departing for potential war with Iraq. "Hey, the last thing soldiers want if they're shipping out is a tattoo," he says. "The deployments are great for my business."

Still, such good cheer belies a deeper sense of apprehension on Sierra Vista's streets, filled with green military vehicles and flag-festooned SUVs. According to the US Department of Defense, approximately 60,000 troops are already in the Persian Gulf region, and the number is predicted to reach 250,000. From Hinesville, Ga., to Camp Pendleton, Calif., military towns such as this one battling to protect their local economies - and sense of community - as populations and customers dwindle.

Sierra Vista is more fortunate than most: steady Sun belt growth may cushion the city from Fort Huachuca deployments, expected to top 1,500 in coming weeks. But there's no doubt that "any massive deployment definitely affect us" says Craig Moore, manager of Cochise Motorsports, a motorcycle dealership. "Of course we'll see an impact."

A recent study shows that Arizona's five major military installations - including Fort Huachuca - pump nearly $6 billion into the state economy each year. Sierra Vista's military base contributes about $480 million annually to the local economy, and employs 4,300 civilian workers.

Just how troop deployments will affect those numbers remains to be seen. Today, however, lunchtime customers at restaurants such as the Golden Corral are still lined up for tables, and the parking lots of Wal-Mart and Target boast plenty of cars.

The town's large population of military retirees "continues giving us a lot of business," says Target Manager Sue Dennis. "Still, this is the first time [the Army] has taken away so many troops all at once." She worries not only about her customers but also her staff, which includes military wives. "So far, they're still here," she says.

Ms. Dennis's efforts to keep her workforce intact may have received a boost from the military; in the past decade, many bases have increased their efforts to keep families from moving away when spouses are deployed.

At Fort Huachuca, there's an effort to strengthen outreach for the families left behind, says spokeswoman Tanja Linton. "For example, we've established an Internet café, so soldiers can keep in touch with their families. We have family support groups, and provide child care when the wives - who are often very young - want a mom's night off."

According to Ms. Linton, support can also come from area businesses, which provide benefits such as free matinees at the theaters, and other gestures to let soldiers' families know they're appreciated. "There is an enormous sense of community in Sierra Vista," she says, "a sense that we're all pulling together."

That cooperation extends to local government as well. In the early 1990s, massive deployments during Desert Storm hit Sierra Vista hard, says City Manager Chuck Potucek. At the same time, the town was buffeted by the savings and loan crisis, and a drop-off in customers from Mexico when the peso crashed.

But since then, the local economy has diversified, and if anything, city officials have ratcheted up integration with the base, he says. "We are a military community, and the fort is a big part of that community. We're always in contact with them, and we're very supportive of the families."

Although the base averages about 11,000 military personnel, the city has also become accustomed to fluctuating fort populations, according to Barry Albrecht, executive director of the Sierra Vista Economic Development Foundation. While current deployments will have the greatest impact upon restaurants and those selling high-ticket home appliances and cars, military-dependent businesses "traditionally position themselves accordingly for deployments or when bases face security shutdowns," he says. Those strategies can include flexible staffing and inventories.

There's even a bright side to the deployments, Mr. Albrecht says. Large-scale departures prompt "lots of temporary travel, where civil service people come to Fort Huachuca to support that mission. You can actually see an increase in hotel stays."

Back at the Enchanted Dragon, Mr. Thomas is busy helping a young enlistee choose a tattoo. The soldier finally picks out a light blue German crescent. Thomas goes behind the counter, seemingly without a worry in the world. "Let's face it," he says, "the guys from the base spend millions of dollars in Sierra Vista. That base is the whole reason this town is even on the map, and we're not going anywhere."

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