In US border towns, influx of troops brings a boom

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Now, hotels are often booked at least a week or two in advance and up to a month during the winter season. It's not uncommon to place five or six calls before finally securing a room.

Outside the Best Western Coronado in downtown Yuma, for example, several pairs of National Guard soldiers and airmen – cases of bottled water piled beside them – sit on white plastic chairs outside their rooms in the evening.

"I would say 70 percent of our winter occupancy is military and government contractors at this point," says Jeanine Rhea, president of the Yuma Hotel Association and general manager at the Hampton Inn and Suites in the town. "Some hotels have blocked out 10 to 15 rooms because [the National Guard and military in general] stay for longer periods."

Many of the guardsmen stay in what are considered "budget" hotels because the government's per diem rate allows only $71 for lodging here. Out of the 33 hotels in Yuma, 27 would be considered "budget" hotels, estimates Ms. Rhea, and those hotels have approximately 2,000 rooms available.

Most of those guardsmen staying at local hotels eat out. Indeed, the restaurant business is booming.

Buffalo Wild Wings, for example, is a popular watering hole for the troops. It features large-screen TVs for sports viewing (even in the rest rooms). Business has definitely picked up since the National Guard has come to town, according to Sara Farmer, a manager. It has added both longer hours for serving food and more staff.

"This seems to be the hangout for them," she says, adding, "Lots of them come from Virginia, Washington," and other faraway places.

Management has added a "blazing challenge," she says, where the challenger, often a military type, must eat 12 chicken wings in the restaurant's "hottest" sauce. "About 75 percent of them are able to accomplish it: They have all their friends cheering them on," she says.

The winners, often red-eyed, with noses running as they finish, are awarded T-shirts, and their photos are posted on the wall.

Other restaurants, as well, have rolled out the welcome mat for the National Guard. Ernesto Santos, manager at the Outback Steakhouse, says that as soon as the National Guard troops were deployed to the border, his restaurant offered them a 20-ounce rib-eye steak for the same price as its regular 14-ounce rib-eye steak.

"I try to talk to each and every one of them that comes in," Mr. Santos says. "The conversation piece is that rib-eye: I challenge them to finish it [nobody so far has been able to] and tell them it gives them extra protein to protect the country."

But in all seriousness, he says, both management and other customers appreciate the National Guard presence. "We especially appreciate that most of them are far away from their families. They come in here to eat, go home to sleep, and do it all over again," he says.

Meanwhile, several national chains are opening new restaurants here, according to Mr. Ingram of the visitors bureau. And 1,600 more hotel rooms are being built and will be available by 2008, according to Rhea of the hotel association.

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