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In US border towns, influx of troops brings a boom

By Faye BowersCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 20, 2007


In this southwestern Arizona town, where the mercury often points to the highest temperatures in the nation, business is booming. Hotels are booked months in advance, and restaurants and pubs are hopping – adding hours and staff and offering special enticements.

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Why? In addition to unprecedented growth, a contingent of National Guard airmen and soldiers has been added to the area for up to two years.

President Bush created Operation Jump Start last year to boost apprehensions of illegal immigrants crossing the US-Mexican border. It's had some success in its assignment – and also a possibly unintended benefit: The 6,000 troops added to the border, 2,400 of whom are based in Arizona, have provided a jolt to business.

Arizona's economy is largely based on the construction of new homes, and although that sector has faltered, it hasn't been as hard hit as the overall US housing market. Still, with the state's economy taking a slower pace, the boost from Operation Jump Start comes at a propitious time.

"Our construction jobs are growing at a far slower pace than before, and our housing market has gone soft," says Dawn McLaren, a research economist at Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business in Tempe. "It's nice to have the added military spending money in that area ... even if only for a two-year stint. That will get us through the soft spot."

According to figures provided by the National Guard, it has so far spent a little more than $1 million on contract lodging in Yuma, and $5 million on lodging in all of Arizona. It has also spent $160,000 on contract meals in in Yuma, and more than $3 million on contract meals and meals ready to eat (MREs) in Arizona overall. In addition, many soldiers and airmen are on per diem allowances and purchase their own meals.

Yuma, like much of Arizona, is a growing community, and it's supported largely by a thriving agriculture business. It has a year-round population of 120,000 to 130,000, according to Bob Ingram, executive director of the Yuma Convention and Visitors Bureau. But in the winter, the population increases by 100,000. (Yuma, in fact, is known as the winter recreational-vehicle capital of the nation.)

Moreover, the area is home to a Marine Corps Air Station and the Army Yuma Proving Ground. And it is also home – for up to two years – of about 1,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen based here as part of Operation Jump Start. Most of them are from out of state.

"We've had 8,000 people rotate through Arizona in support of Operation Jump Start," says Maj. Paul Aguirre, spokesman for the Arizona National Guard. "Five hundred of those are from the Arizona National Guard."

Some have been lodged temporarily on the military bases here, but that's been minimal because of previously scheduled operations on those bases, according to Major Aguirre. Most National Guard troops have been housed in local hotels, apartment buildings, and in rented houses.

That's been good for businesses. Although no one person or agency has tracked the impact of the National Guard on the local economy, anecdotal evidence shows a big boom. It's a boom that could carry businesses through the summer months, when the 120 degree F. heat arrives and tourists leave.