SUMTER S.C. --- Advance forces of Gen. George Patton's famed Third Army have begun leaving Atlanta and moving to new quarters on an Air Force base in central South Carolina, an invasion of Army green uniforms that is sparking hopes of an economic boom in a city of 37,000.
It has brought a welcome surge of activity for real estate agents who have struggled during the recession, and it has sparked some competition between them and apartment owners trying to rent to the newcomers.
"I had six agents out with Army people scouting houses last week and will probably have at least that many next week," said Debbie Bowen, the broker-in-charge of the ERA Wilder real estate firm.
"2009 was rock bottom for us," she said. "Indicators of the past few months show us things may be on the upswing."
In May, the Third Army expects to open the doors of a new $93 million headquarters built over the past two years. About 1,200 officers, senior enlisted men and women, civilian workers and contractors will be working by Sept. 1, when offices in Atlanta officially close.
As many as 650 families could come along as the Army wraps up the shift ordered in 2005 as part of the Pentagon's national base realignment and closing process. Housing decisions are left to each family, said Col. Robert Young, who is overseeing the relocation.
"The Army won't make a family move. Their decision will be based on their own economic situation, where the kids might be in school, if they are thinking of retiring in South Carolina," Young said.
Still, the community is hoping many will choose to make the region their home.
Hand-painted banners saying "Welcome Third Army!" flutter in church yards and fly from apartment complex balconies.
A former commander at Shaw, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Tom Olsen, jokingly said he's concerned the banners might cause hurt feelings among the 24,000 active duty and civilian Air Force men and women at Shaw.
"Maybe a few should say, 'All military welcome,' " said Olsen with a smile. "The Air Force turns over twice as many people every year."
Olsen, who was the No. 2 Air Force commander in the Persian Gulf during the first war against Iraq, said the move brings together the Army and Air Force units that deploy to the Mideast and southwest Asia.
"Over the last 10 years, they've become very, very close," said Olsen.
Shaw is the headquarters for the 9th Air Force, which is responsible for 350 aircraft. The Third Army's 15,000 soldiers and civilians -- one-third of whom can expect to be stationed a year at a time in the Mideast, Iraq or Afghanistan -- are the planners and logistical support units for other Army units in the region.
Olsen said the Third Army has a command structure weighted with senior officers and enlisted men and women. That means they might be bringing older children, working spouses, dual-career military couples or even those close to retirement who may want to stay in the community.
Because much of the older military housing on Shaw is slated for renovation in the coming years, Army families will probably live off base. Some might decide to remain where they are, if they are coming from other Army installations, he noted.