Originally created 02/28/01

Desert Storm offers lesson in economics



Eleven years ago, Liberty County's economy withered when more than a fifth of its population left as Desert Storm approached.

The first large-scale deployment since 1975, when Fort Stewart was built up, was a harsh reminder of how much the area depends on the military installation. Researchers estimated in 1992 that a similar future deployment would siphon $98.6 million from the local economy.

Business and government leaders vowed that the community would diversify to prevent future deployments from causing so much havoc.

Five months ago, about 2,800 Fort Stewart soldiers were sent to Bosnia. They're due back within two months, but then about 1,700 soldiers will head to Bosnia. Shortly afterward, about 3,000 more will deploy to Kosovo.

Liberty County business owners expect those deployments to impact the economy, but not as badly as Desert Storm. They say the county's economy is better than it was in 1990. Plus, there are more people, jobs, community resources and support groups to entice military spouses to stay.

But they still don't think their community is ready for another Desert Storm. And some say there is no way it can be.

"That's just part of life in a military community," business owner Matt Mattingly said.

That August 1990, 18,000 soldiers were ordered to leave for the Middle East. People rushed to the courthouse to get marriage licenses. Pending housing sales were canceled. Military spouses packed their bags and moved to be with parents.

"I had never seen a town go from being populated to being a ghost town within three days," said Brenda McCormick, properties manager of Tree Properties, a Hinesville rental agency.

The deployment hit the pocketbooks of restaurants, car dealers, real estate agents, pawn shops, nightclubs, laundries and merchants.

"It was tough making ends meet when the troops were gone," said Bud Frankenthaler, who owned a restaurant then.

After the 1990 deployment, city, county and community leaders pushed to diversify the economy.

"It's just like a community with one big industry,' said Ron Tolley, the president of the Liberty County Development Authority. "If you're dominated by one particular industry, things are wonderful when the industry is doing well. But if it folds, all the eggs are in one basket."

With then-U.S. Rep. Lindsay Thomas' help, the Georgia Research Alliance studied the local economy and how it could diversify.

The alliance recommended pursuing a telecommunications operation because of the availability of military spouses as workers.

Two years ago, community leaders said, the study helped the county attract West Tele Services, which employs about 335 workers.

In 1999, the county also successfully landed Muskin Leisure Products, Component Technologies, Load Star, Mainship Corp. and Evergreen Forest Products.

Despite these successes, many still say the economic engine of Liberty County is Fort Stewart.

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce estimates that Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield have an annual regional economic impact of $1.85 billion

The federal government has no funds to help communities economically during deployments, said George Holtzman, the president of Coastal Empire Chapter of the Association of the U.S. Army.

It was a hot topic among Liberty County's leaders after the Desert Storm deployment, but discussions quickly faded. U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., said he has not heard anyone advocate such a policy.

Mr. Miller is noncommittal about whether there should be such a policy.

Instead, he said, people should appreciate the economic impact the fort has when the soldiers are there.

"Here are countless Georgia communities who would give anything to have a Fort Stewart," he said. "You have to look at the total picture."