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VOL. 35 | NO. 47 | Friday, November 25, 2011

Making it home

Soldiers are increasingly putting down roots in the Clarksville area, easing the economic strains once caused by extended deployments.

By Tim Ghianni

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Medium skin fades are $11 at Bo’s Barber Shop on Fort Campbell Boulevard.

“That’s all the way down to the skin with a razor and then a fade,” says Ronnie Ward, the first barber on the left. His brother, Randy, is first barber on the right of the 20-year-old family business owned by mom Faye.

“She comes in here on Friday,” Ronnie Ward says. “That’s payday.” That’s the beginning of what Ward terms “standing room only” weekends for the 12-chair barber shop that’s open 75 hours a week, including buzzing Saturday and Sunday shifts.

For the last few months it’s been boom time at the shop, whose main customers are members of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and other soldiers at Fort Campbell, including Maj. Gen. James C. McConville, post and division commander.

“He sits right here in one of our chairs,” says Ward, who attended a recent breakfast at which the general told the crowd the last 3,900 soldiers will be back by February’s end. That would bring the number of troops at the post up from the skeleton support staff of the full deployment of a year ago to about 30,000.

That number includes about 20,000 members of the 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles plus the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), aka “The Green Berets”, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, aka “The Night Stalkers,” among the elite who participated in Osama Bin Laden’s extinction, as well as the 52nd Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit and other military forces.

And others come here to learn Air Assault skills from the 101st. A recent Friday night foray to downtown Clarksville included the sight of well-shaved and extremely well-oiled British soldiers offering curtsies and curses to passersby outside the historic Roxy Regional Theatre.

Ward, whose barber shop had to cut staff hours during the deployment, has seen a dramatic increase in business in the months since the soldiers began to return to post after revolving door deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We’ve worked through five or six deployments,” he says of the shop that’s been on “The Boulevard” – as it’s known in Clarksville – since 1991. “Probably 75 percent of our business is Army. Whenever they deploy, I know my paycheck cuts in half.”

But, due to planning and the fact the city has gone out of its way to become a home for military spouses and retirees, Clarksville didn’t suffer economically as much as it did during pre-9/11 deployments.

“We can certainly tell when they are coming back,” says Mayor Kim McMillan, who spent a dozen years in the state Legislature before running for mayor last year. “Obviously we have a wonderful relationship with Fort Campbell and military personnel. We are certainly concerned for them and their families when they are gone.

“That doesn’t mean the town dries up and blows away when they are gone, but when they are back it’s an added benefit and plus to our community. We look forward to when they are here,” she says.

“One of the things that I think is part of our community legacy is how Clarksville supports families of the military,” says James Chavez, president and CEO of the Clarksville-Montgomery County Economic Development Council and the Chamber of Commerce.

That support has kept the city’s economy from flatlining during deployments since 9/11 and “now that the soldiers are transitioning home for longer periods of time than we’ve been used to, it’s even more critical for our community to stand by the soldiers,” he says.

Of course, things like actual sales tax collections – the city and Montgomery County scored an all-time, one-month high of almost $5.4 million in August, up from just under $4 million in actual collections the August before – tell a part of the story. Of course, there is other growth in Clarksville – Hemlock Semiconductor is in the process of putting more than $1 billion into the construction of a plant to open next year.

But the boom times in general can be traced to the Army, with soldiers and their families buying cars, homes, shopping at malls, deploying to taverns and crowding restaurants while such discretionary spending diminishes elsewhere in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Chavez says the Army’s impact goes much deeper than the pocketbook.

“The first comment I would make is what having them back does for the atmosphere around here,” he says. “Even this Saturday, being out at the soccer fields (with his 11-year-old son) and seeing more and more military parents, especially dads who have been deployed now being able to watch their kids play soccer.” It’s an image he says he will savor forever.

Standing by the soldiers and their families has been critical in keeping the economy vital even while the troops have been involved in two theaters of war for the last decade, according to Don Jenkins, owner of Jenkins & Wynne, a Ford/Lincoln/Toyota dealership that’s been selling cars here since 1953.

The numbers of cars leaving the lot since the soldiers began the redeployment home is evidence of the GIs’ economic influence.

Jenkins says that is just one payoff of merchants nurturing military ties. Sure, there’s more money spent when troops are home, but economic ruin has been averted when troops are engaged in the Global War on Terror.

“Used to be when the soldiers deployed, their spouses and families would go home,” he says. “The (Clarksville Area Chamber of Commerce) has been very aggressive in recruiting companies that provide second jobs for households, and the post commander has encouraged the families to stay at Fort Campbell during deployments now.”

Car sales slow during deployments, he adds, but “the families are still here and they still need service on their vehicles.”

It’s a far different economic formula than what existed during pre-9/11 deployments.

“Business was abysmal,” Jenkins says of the periods when troops deployed to Desert Storm, Kosovo and other campaigns. “Every car dealer in town had a lot of sales people that had quit. We had shrunk our work forces. When the soldiers came back, we literally didn’t have enough salespeople to wait on customers as they came in.”

There are plenty more cars sold now than a year ago – sales are up by 25 percent, he says – but the strategy to partner with the soldiers and support their families has paid off practically and emotionally.

“This is not simply a business plan to encourage our military to stay here. It’s heartfelt by Clarksville people,” he says, noting that 40 percent of his staff is retired military.

The figurative wall that long separated civilian and military populations has come tumbling down.

“The whole time they are gone, we pray for them. They go to Sunday school and church with us and they go to our golf courses,” says Jenkins. “They are an integral part of our fabric in Clarksville. They are our friends. We don’t look at people as to what profession they have.”

Successful businessman Jeff Bibb, 57, a Clarksville native, testifies to the veracity of that “all for one” attitude that now prevails in his hometown. “I’ve seen it in our church,” says the longtime member of Hilldale United Methodist Church, which presides over a stretch of Madison Street in south Clarksville, near the neighborhood where he grew up.

“It was rare to have military families as part of our congregation when I was younger, but the combination of military, retirees and families make up a significant portion of the congregation now.”

The importance of the military payroll to the local economy can’t be overstated says former Mayor Ted “Wild Turkey” Crozier.

Crozier first arrived at Fort Campbell in June 1949, and spent several tours at the post, including his final duty as chief of staff of the 101st Airborne Division and Fort Campbell, before retiring in 1977.

A retired colonel, Crozier embraced military/community integration when stationed at Campbell and chose Clarksville as his post-retirement home.

Crozier and two of his late friends, retired Cols. Robert E. Jones and Art “The Godfather” Lombardi – dubbed “The 101 Mafia” by Gen. David Petraeus back when he commanded the division – recently were honored by the downtown Kiwanis Club for their efforts in promoting the 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell and the Clarksville-Montgomery County community.

Crozier eagerly discusses the importance of the military-civilian partnership.

“To give you an example, we are all crazy about Hemlock,” says the 86-year-old who served eight years as mayor, beginning in 1979. “They made a statement that a full employment of 500 will be a $50 million payroll.”

He then points to the influx of money from the troops: The most recent statistics furnished by Fort Campbell show the post’s total military payroll is about $1.4 billion. Throw in the pay of civilian workers and it pushes $1.7 billion.

“That’s a ton of dough,” Bibb says, adding it’s virtually impossible to overstate the importance of that military payroll to the community. But he also says the genuine affection for the post is genuine and enduring.

“Clarksville has extended a hand to Fort Campbell for the last 30 or 40 years,” by providing support, services, retail and housing, he says.

It has been a change in attitude in the old tobacco port on the Cumberland River. “When I was in high school and before that, during the Vietnam War era, you saw a lot of soldiers coming and going for a few months and they were out of here.

“With today’s volunteer Army, you have so many more people in the military who are truly career-oriented” whose tours at Campbell extend beyond combat training.

“As opposed to being here for relatively short period of time, people are assigned here for a number of years. We have a married military now. As opposed to just lighting here for a little while, you have families buying homes here,” says Bibb, noting that he and Frank Lott, his partner in BLF Marketing, have benefited by being able to choose employees from the rich talent pool of Army spouses.

Tom Denney knows about the city-Army partnership from both sides of the heavily patrolled fence surrounding the massive post that straddles the Tennessee-Kentucky line at Clarksville’s edge.

For 32 years, Denney served in the Army, retiring 23 years ago as a colonel.

“I’m still working hard,” as vice president for Coldwell Banker Conroy, Marable & Holleman Real Estate, chairman of the board of the Fort Campbell Credit Bureau and honorary colonel of the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade.

“My last tour at Campbell, I was the garrison commander,” the vital 75-year-old says. “That’s really like being mayor of the post.”

Rather than take an assignment in Hawaii back in 1988, he elected to retire in Clarksville.

That climate of both of the weather – “I’d served in countries where there weren’t four seasons and didn’t like it” – and the friendly civilian population contributed to his decision to stay in the Queen City of the Cumberland.

“It’s not the one-horse town it was back in the 1950s, when there were only 12,000-25,000 people,” he says. “Plus it’s easy living, close to a big city. It’s like living in a large-enough town that you have got all you need, but it’s just a short hop to Nashville.

“And it’s soldier-friendly. We like the guys. They are a major part of our complete economy. When their husbands or wives do go overseas, a lot of their families stay here. They are comfortable living in this environment.”

As a man who has served in outposts wild and tame, he finds his adopted hometown unique. “Every general, when they come in, they say this is the friendliest place we’ve ever been in the military.”

That’s not simple hyperbole, says Denney. “This is really a different place and people know it when they come here.”

Like car-dealer Jenkins, Denney points to the retiree part of the puzzle, in that many soldiers choose to live near Fort Campbell when their service is done for the same reasons he chose to.

That ongoing vitality, contributed to by the retirees and the nesting spouses, kept the real estate business here stronger, even in deployment, than in many other cities.

“A lot of these people who are coming back, many of them bought homes before they went, in case something happened to them, so their spouses and families would have a place to live,” he says.

With the ongoing rotation home “we see a lot of energy,” Denney says.

With expectations of being home longer this time, soldiers who spent much of the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan now “are saying ‘If I’m going to be home two, three, four years … I’m going to invest in a piece of property that’s mine,’” Denney says. “A lot of them decide they are going to retire here when they are done, so they are buying their retirement home.”

Lt. Col. Frank Garcia, division public affairs officer, is among those pondering settling down here. He and his wife, Andrea, and their daughters, 14 and 12, rent in the Dunbar Cave area.

But the soldier, who spent about 2½ years in Iraq over the course of two deployments, finds Clarksville a uniquely good city for soldiers.

“It’s a wonderful place to live. Great quality of life, lots of things to do, with Nashville being as close as it is and LBL (the Land Between the Lakes, a 170,000-acre National Recreation Area) to the west of us for those of us who like to do outdoors things,” he says. “And the way the community embraces military members and veterans is a definite plus. There probably aren’t many areas near a military base that have this level of support from a community.”

About 14,000 soldiers and 13,000 family members live on the post when troops are home, Fort Campbell statistics show. The other 16,500 soldiers and 40,000 family members find housing in the community. Some choose nearby Hopkinsville and Oak Grove, Ky., with the bulk choosing Clarksville and Montgomery County, Tenn.

Soldiers use their housing allowance to find off-post accommodations and, if they choose to own, “they can purchase a nice home cheaper than they can rent one,” Denney says.

But even during the thick of deployment, his business didn’t die.

“Surprisingly, the housing market wasn’t slow, even when they were gone, because a lot of them have given the power of attorney so their wives could buy a house.”

It’s not been unusual for a soldier to buy a house, shopping over the Internet, even while on the battlefront.

David Greene, managing broker for one of the city’s two Crye-Leike locations and president of the Clarksville Association of Realtors, also talks about how soldiers sit in front of computers in Afghanistan or Iraq and shop.

“They know what they want and we help them narrow down what they want to see,” Greene says. “If a wife is not handling the business and you’ve got a single guy, he might have a girlfriend or a fiancé who might help. Or his father might come down and check out the house during the inspection process.”

For that reason, the city has remained a “fluid market,” although it did improve when the soldiers began rotating home this year.

Winter and spring the market was down about 15 percent, he says, noting that in the winter that was largely due to bad weather. But by July, during the thick of the homecoming that began early in the year, the market was up by 15 percent.

“You don’t get that kind of rebound normally. Some of that was because the soldiers had come home. Also the weather got better and that is our peak season.”

That growth continues into this fall.

“It’s always been a good market,” says Greene, adding homes typically remain on the market 90 to 120 days, much shorter than the norm in many cities and regions.

“We’ve been fortunate through the big economic downturn of ‘07-’08, and I think that’s due to our soldiers’ involvement in the community,” says.

Not all soldiers buy houses, though. Many, if they can’t be accommodated on post, rent apartments. And there aren’t many to spare right now. “Our multi-family living is running at very high occupancy,” the Chamber’s Chavez says.

Even those who don’t buy houses, buy cars. Car sales have climbed about 25 percent over last year, says Jenkins. “A lot of that is obviously when the soldiers come back from Afghanistan; many of them have looked forward to buying a new car and then going on 30 days’ leave.”

Soldiers, by the way, “love trucks. The Ford F-150 is a real favorite of the military. Ford Explorers, Fusions, Mustangs and Honda Accords and Pilots also are big. And Odyssey vans for the family.”

Yes, the soldiers do matter, but their importance far outweighs the dollars they spend, according to Jenkins.

“I see people in my lounge who have two prostheses,” he says. “These guys are here that have every right to have a chip on their shoulder and give up, but their attitude is incredible. It’s so uplifting.”

And never far from the minds of soldiers and civilians is that the 101st lost 139 soldiers, according to the official count released by the post, since March 2010 in Afghanistan. And scarcely a week goes by when more deaths aren’t reported. At the same time, scarcely a week goes by that isn’t highlighted by a cheerful homecoming celebration.

In salute to the soldiers, Jenkins and his staff wear red shirts every Friday, example of the sense of patriotism that – as much as the military paychecks – keep this city perked up, emotionally and economically.

“They are my heroes, man,” says barber Ward, as soldiers continue to come in for $11 medium skin fades.

He says he loves listening to the stories he hears from the lowliest enlisted man all the way up to the commanding general.

“They go over there and they live through unbearable stuff. While laying there on the ground with half a leg missing, they still got a weapon in their hand and they do what they do.”

Sure, some of them “are more personable than others” when they sit in the barber chair – or shop for cars or homes, surely – but that’s OK, because “they got a lot on their minds.”

As for the haircut itself, well, it’s more difficult than it looks to construct the proper medium skin fade. “It’s a lot harder to notice mistakes if you got a lot of hair. When you just got a little bit of hair, it’s easy to spot.”

An entire city and massive military post celebrate that medium skin fades are becoming more and more a part of Clarksville’s outward appearance.

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