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

Location, lifestyle are key attractions for soldiers, veterans

By Tim Ghianni

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Fort Campbell’s impact on Clarksville goes far beyond the 30,000 or so active military personnel who are in the process of finishing their redeployment to the 105,000-acre military post at Clarksville’s edge.

“Clarksville is a place where a lot of military people come to retire,” says Tom Denney, a retired colonel, former garrison commander and currently community leader and businessman.

He says that many troops buy homes in Clarksville for when they do retire, even if they know they’ll be deployed elsewhere.

Denney is one who chose the city as his retirement home when his 32-year career came to an end.

“Taxes aren’t bad, it’s close to Nashville, there’s a military facility (which offers benefits and privileges to retirees) and it’s easy living,” he says.

“When I was garrison commander, we supported about 175,000 retirees in the area,” says Denney, noting that area includes 17 counties in Kentucky and all of Tennessee.

“A lot of them come up from Franklin, Brentwood, Nashville. They all come up here to the commissary once a month.”

That group draws more than $1.3 billion in retirement pay annually, according to the most recent statistics provided by Fort Campbell.

Most of the retirees settle in the city and in Montgomery County, although others choose nearby Hopkinsville and Oak Grove, Ky., or move toward Dover, in adjoining Stewart County, to enjoy the outdoors opportunities offered in the Land Between the Lakes.

Lt. Gen. Hubert Smith, 70, is one of those who chose Clarksville as a place to retire.

Although he finished his career in 1997 as commander in chief of the U.S. Transportation Command at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, he had spent two tours at Campbell and he and his family had become members of the massive First Baptist Church on Madison Street.

“We had more friends here than anywhere,” he says, noting his two longest tours were at the post.

He points to the cost of living in Clarksville and the proximity of “a world-class airport in Nashville” (he was an executive with the Airport Authority after his military days were done) as good reasons for retiring in Clarksville.

And, “housing is very good, the prices are very reasonable. And the economy is stable. Unlike the Vietnam era, when most of the troops were deployed, the spouses stay put, invest themselves in the community.”

Lt. Col. Frank Garcia, division public affairs officer, is one who can see the value of possibly retiring here. “The quality of life, the low tax burden, the good cost of living and of course the fact that Fort Campbell is a pretty good-sized military base that has resources available to retirees as well,” he says.

James Chavez, CEO of the EDC and Chamber, echoes those sentiments. “One of the things we’ve learned over time is that people want to stay here once they get out, so we are starting to look at how we can foster entrepreneurship for the military.

“These guys get out and they are street smart and Army smart and we’re recruiting businesses to the area and growing the existing base so there are opportunities they can build on. We are very blessed.”

Mayor Kim McMillan, who served in the state Legislature for a dozen years and spent time in the Bredesen administration before running for her current office a year ago, concurs.

“You know it’s great when so many people from other places choose to live in Clarksville,” she says, of the retirees who decide to invest their post-GI in the area rather than return to their own hometowns.

McMillan says that because of the large number of retirees who move to the area, “hopefully within the next year we’ll be breaking ground on a site for a veterans’ nursing home, a veterans’ community living center.

“It’s something that began years ago; we began working on bringing that type of facility to our community because of the number of military retirees here.”

The nearest VA nursing home is in Murfreesboro, a good 1½-2 hours away from loved ones in Clarksville. Some military retirees – including former Mayor Ted Crozier – had pushed to get the city’s old hospital site, on Madison Street at Memorial Drive, turned into a combination hospital and nursing home when a new hospital complex was built near Interstate 24. That plan didn’t succeed, but now the long push to have VA facilities in Clarksville is nearing groundbreaking reality.

The city and county each have kicked in $750,000, while the state has added $8 million and “the feds, through the VA, is paying the vast significant amount,” McMillan says.

The site is “behind the Walmart, off Lafayette, in North Clarksville,” she adds.

Military retirees aren’t just former Army troops, explains David Greene, president of the local realtors association.

“I personally have had a Marine colonel who had never even stepped foot on Fort Campbell soil search out and choose this area to retire in. His wife liked the area and it’s close to Nashville, which gave them an airport.”

One who takes pride in the number of retirees is Crozier, whose ties to the Queen City of the Cumberland include the fact he married his late wife, Mary Tom Wall, a native Clarksvillian, in 1950 and it is where they raised their three children.

After becoming mayor back in 1979, he said he purposely set out not just to improve the relationship with the post but also to turn Clarksville into a mecca for military retirees.

“When I took over, we had 10 percent unemployment, a 20 percent interest rate and 14 percent inflation,” he says. “So I said, ‘here’s what we’ll do, we’ll focus on Fort Campbell and try to get people to come and join us and retire here.’”

He notes the discounts and privileges at businesses throughout the community that are designed to make the city friendly to soldiers and military retirees.

Don Jenkins of Jenkins & Wynne auto dealership talks about the number of retirees who have gone on to find successful second careers in Clarksville.

“They have a lot of skills and they work really well in our business,” he says. His staff includes 40 military retirees who work in sales, as technicians and in body work.

“So many military people have retired in Clarksville, and no matter how many hours we ask them to work, it’s not as much as they worked when they were in the military, because the military are definitely underpaid for the hours they put in and the sacrifices for our nation.”

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