Lessons from Hinesville 1 — Army towns

Last week I was in three cities — Phoenix, Seattle, and Portland — that have people who “get it”. But that’s not just true of big cities. There are — all over America — people in smaller places who also understand good urbanism (even if on a smaller scale).

That was the case this week in Hinesville, Georgia.

Now I should write a word about how I see my professional obligations. About a third of my professional time is educational broadly construed — giving a speech, doing a workshop, writing, etc. Another third is what I refer to as market strategic. That might be an economic impact study or a downtown revitalization plan, or a technical assistance visit, usually short and very focussed. The last third of my time is building specific — helping a non-profit organization or a government entity create a strategy for the redevelopment and reuse of a white elephant building.

Now because in the first category I’m not providing any proprietary information to the client (or usually receiving any from them) I don’t have any hesitation in writing about what I learned in that city. In the last two categories, however, I’m being paid to provide specific advice about a specific local issue. And that advice (whether or not it’s useful) I view as the property of the client, not mine. So unless I received specific authorization from that client, I would never disclose on here what my recommendations were.

However I do think it’s fair game on this blog to comment on the city itself and what I may have learned there. Hinesville, population of a bit over 30,000 is the county seat of Liberty County and lies 25 miles or so south and west of Savannah, Georgia. But Hinesville is also the gateway to Fort Stewart, home of the 3rd Infantry Division, 280,000 acres, 22,000 soldiers and thousands more military families, civilian DOD employees, and contractors.

“Army towns” do face a set of unusual challenges, not the least of which is when a whole brigade is deployed (as has frequently been the case with these soldiers during the Iraq War) the local economy greatly suffers.

But here’s the first lesson I learned: in recent years Hinesville seems to have suffered less in this regard. Why? Well, the answers are no doubt complex, but here’s part of the reason. Army wives are tending to stay in Hinesville during their husbands’ deployment in far greater numbers than in the past when they often would go home to family until their spouse returned. Again, why? There seem to be four reasons: 1) more jobs are available in the local economy; 2) the Army has greatly improved its support system for the families of soldiers overseas; 3) much better and steadily improving housing and 4) (and maybe most importantly) Hinesville is a city that is open, welcoming, and supportive of Army spouses at home.

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Lesson two: when there is a high quality of life in the community beyond the fence lines of the installation, Army towns become Army retirement towns. Of course being close to on-post medical facilities and the PX are part of that, but alone would be insufficient. The fact that many military retirees are relatively young and look forward to a second career plays a part. Because high numbers of civilian jobs exist on Army posts, there are often numerous employment opportunities working in the same general areas in which the soldier learned his/her skills during their uniformed days. But this too, is not enough. For retired soldiers to choose a particular “Army town” to retire to, it also requires community amenities — in arts, culture, dining, shopping, recreation, parks, et al. And both the Army and some Army towns are recognizing and responding to this — Hinesville among them.

Lesson three: A whole lot of assumptions that those of us not living in places like Hinesville, a whole lot of national retail chains, and a whole lot of developers have about Army towns, just ain’t so. They constitute the “Myths of the Army Town” and here are some of them:

Myth 1: Yeah, there may be lots of soldiers, but they don’t make much money so there’s no economic opportunity.

Reality 1: Even at the lowest pay grades, and even for single soldiers, most of the income they do receive is disposable income as their housing needs are met either through on base housing or housing allowances. In fact for the 70% of Fort Stewart soldiers who live off post, many times they can find good housing at less than their monthly allowance so have additional disposable income. And whenever they want soldiers can eat on post. When a monthly budget is relieved of the housing and food components, what seems like not much pay goes much further.

Myth 2: The PX meets all the needs of the soldiers, so there’s no opportunity for general merchandise stories or groceries off post.

Reality 2: There is PLENTY that the soldier and his/her family can’t find on post and go elsewhere to buy. In the case of Hinesville, around 30% of the retail purchases that are being made by residents of Hinesville aren’t made in Hinesville, rather in downtown and at the shopping centers of nearby Savannah and elsewhere. And much of that leakage is coming from military families.

Myth 3: The only businesses that prosper in Army towns are topless bars and pawn shops.

Reality 3: What an antiquated, frankly ignorant image of today’s Army. Better educated, more female, more worldly, more sophisticated. Now you may have read stories that with the need for more soldiers the Army has lowered its standards for recruits. I don’t know. But what I do know is that once in the Army, there is an obligation for both enlisted and officers to continue and advance their education. How is that manifested? Well, my vignette is that a major reason for the need for an enlarged education center on Fort Stewart was to accommodate the demand for more computers for lower ranking enlisted soldiers.

National retail chains mostly operate on some computer based formula saying “we’ll only locate at a site that has x number of people with y amount of household income within z miles.” But that approach fails to recognize the nuances of a place like Hinesville. I don’t shed tears for the chains for being so myopic as to miss the chance to make money. But I do feel a bit sorry for soldiers and their families who have to schlep an hour away for goods and services that could be available down the street.

Next — What Hinesville is doing