- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2003

KILLEEN, Texas -
Operation Iraqi Freedom is beginning to pinch this town of 103,000, the home of Fort Hood, the U.S. Army's largest base. "It's slowed down quite a bit," said Best Buy electronics salesman Daniel Edwards, 16, sipping a soda during his lunch break. "People are just coming in and looking," he said. "People aren't buying."
Fort Hood, 60 miles north of Austin, trains about 42,000 soldiers and is home to one of the most heavily armored divisions.
About 10 percent of the troops are in the Iraq theater, and 12,500 others from the high-tech 4th Infantry (Mechanized) Division will begin flying to the Middle East today, a spokeswoman at the base said yesterday.
A swath of businesses from restaurants to car dealerships and furniture stores have seen their sales shrink in the past several days and weeks as the town slowly empties. Retailers attributed some of the lower sales during the weekend to customers staying home and watching war footage on television. The souring national economy also has played a role.
At Tex-Star Furniture in downtown Killeen, sales totaled about $400 Saturday, compared with a typical Saturday sale of $6,000 to $8,000 in the past two months, said assistant manager Shannette Moore. Soldiers from Fort Hood, about a mile away, make up 80 percent of the customers.
"We've already had to cut back two delivery guys," she said. People are buying small pieces such as bed frames, instead of full bedroom and living room sets, she added.
If all the soldiers leave for the war, "it'll turn into basically a ghost town," she said, remembering Operation Desert Storm in the 1991 Persian Gulf war. At least 13,000 troops from the 1st Cavalry Division will be left at the base after the 4th Infantry Division moves out.
Her husband is in the 4th and is "fixing to deploy." He had to buy 90 days worth of personal hygiene items and name tags for his desert camouflage uniforms.
Those expenses have forced both of them to cut in half their monthly $500 entertainment budget for their three children at home, she said. "We're not going out to eat, and not buying videos for the kids."
At Sakura Sushi & Grill on Central Texas Expressway, business is "up and down," with a drop in sales last month, said manager Terry Lin.
A typical lunch check for two persons totals $25, he said. Army personnel account for about 15 percent of as many as 200 people who dine there. "It's less soldiers right now for lunch. Nighttime, it's near the same," Mr. Lin said, as dinner for two is about $50.
Killeen's sales tax revenue is likely to suffer. January sales tax revenue was down 9.8 percent compared with a year earlier, said Connie Green, the town's director of finance.
"There may be an additional impact due to deployment," he said, though he cautioned that the numbers should be viewed as a trend, rather than a point in time.
"We know it's going to have an effect," said Killeen Chamber of Commerce President Roy Wolfe. But Killeen has added 15 to 20 retailers in the past five years, including chain stores, such as Home Depot.
To help the community in case of war, the chamber six months ago began organizing a support effort for the spouses and children of soldiers to ward off the desire to move away.
The "Stand Behind Our Soldiers" program provides free and discounted products to family members of deployed soldiers, such as reduced lawn-mowing services and free tire repair.
Local officials said the financial effect on Killeen has been negligible and can withstand the downturn that comes with a large deployment.
They say the town has broadened its economic base since Desert Storm when the area was smaller and relied more heavily on Fort Hood for its livelihood.
The base was established during World War II, transforming the area's character from an agriculture and railroad town.
It is named for Confederate soldier Gen. John B. Hood and is regarded as having one of the most technologically advanced Army units.
During Desert Storm, Killeen's population was 63,000, and 24,000 troops left to fight. At least 160 mom-and-pop businesses shut down, and several apartment complexes with reduced occupancy filed for bankruptcy protection.
Lacy Bennett, 24, doesn't like Killeen. She has no intention of moving, though, when her husband, Staff Sgt. Ralph Bennett, goes to war.
"A lot of people are here cause they have to be, not because they want to be," she said. Mrs. Bennett, three months pregnant, works at a mental retardation facility in neighboring Temple. The couple, who have been married a year, have an 8-year-old son, and have cut costs by buying generic brand food and clothing. They now eat out about twice a month instead of every weekend.
"I handle all the finances," said the graduate of Angelo State University in west Texas. "We're a little too young to be living this lifestyle. We stay at home. We don't go out."
Town leaders have tried to boost the economy by bringing in new employers and offering residents more opportunities, such as college courses and retiree services.
Allen Cloud, owner of Cloud Real Estate and head of Killeen's Economic Development Corp., hopes to increase the number of tenants at the local industrial park. 'We're not the center of the universe, but we're pretty close."
While Killeen attempts to diversify, it may not be able to shake off its reputation as a military town, said Richard Butler, an economics professor at Trinity University in San Antonio.
Such communities have economic development groups to "bribe" companies to relocate, but as the subsidies and tax abatements disappear, the companies leave, too.
"The best situation is simply to accept the fact that their economy is supported by a relatively unpredictably industry," he said. "Most of the time, it's OK. In times of urgency, they're affected more than others."
One big-ticket market suffering a precipitous sales decline is the automobile industry. Sales at the Patriot Buick, Pontiac and GMC dealership, for instance, were down 35 percent in the past month, according to company information.
The military crowd is more subdued at the Doll House topless strip club. And fewer science fiction and fantasy books, a favorite of Fort Hood soldiers, are being purchased at Waldenbooks at the Killeen Mall.
Some businesses have prospered.
One of them is the B&K; Pawn Shop. Soldiers with extra cash are buying Nintendo Game Boy video games, manager Joe Rowlett said.
"We're having a better year right now than last year," he said.
Across town at the Texas Road House restaurant, bartender Toya Caulew said business has been busy as troops prepare to leave for war.
"People are blowing their paychecks" on alcohol, the 20 year-old said Saturday night.
Even so, the welfare of the soldiers is more important than the town's economy, said Killeen Mayor Maureen Jouett.
"The soldiers go to our churches, their kids go to our schools, they're our neighbors. It's really not about the money. It's about the people. We're more concerned about the people than the money. People always play up the economic impact. Well, so what? We'll get over it."

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