Troops' return brings economic surge to Cumberland County

The 82nd Airborne is home.

You can see it on Yadkin, Reilly and Skibo roads, where traffic looks more like the buildup to a holiday than a lazy day in late September.

Or in the businesses and restaurants around town, where many managers and employees have reported longer lines or busier dinner rushes because of soldiers freshly returned from the war in Afghanistan.

Nearly 9,000 paratroopers - the size of the city of Dunn - have returned to Fort Bragg over the past several weeks, coming in droves and welcomed home a few hundred at a time in ceremonies at Pope Field.

The last soldiers returned Friday, marking the first time since 2010 that the entire 82nd Airborne Division has been home, a rarity in the post-9/11 world.

While the soldiers adjust to life back home, the community has to adjust to their return, as well.

On a recent Sunday on Yadkin Road, Paul Owens' barbershop was filled with the buzz of clippers and growing piles of discarded hair.

The Drop Zone/Fox Hole at 6466 Yadkin Road offers haircuts and boot shines for a largely military clientele.

Over the past months, Owens said, the shop struggled with so many soldiers overseas. Now, he and others who do business in the shadow of Fort Bragg are starting to see business boom again.

It's the cyclical nature of Fort Bragg, said Owens, who has cut hair in the shop for nearly two dozen years. He weathered Desert Storm and now the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"We've been noticing for the last nine years," Owens said. "This isn't just happening now. (Their return) is really a blessing for them and us. I'm looking more than forward to it."

From barbershops to car dealerships to retailers, stores along Fayetteville's shopping corridors have started to notice the influx of soldiers.

"A certain number of them always need a new automobile or something from the mall," said Dan Dederick of Hendrick Chrysler Jeep.

Dederick said the retail economy in Fayetteville is stable because not all soldiers are deployed at the same time.

That insulates many stores that do business with soldiers. It also means good things for stores when the majority of those soldiers are home.

"We're already having a very good year," Dederick said. "It'll get better."

Traffic at restaurants and nightspots also is increasing.

Marcia Hall, a bartender at It'z Entertainment City on Legend Avenue, said business was slower than usual with so many deployed. But now, that's starting to change.

"We've seen a little bit of an increase," said Hall, whose husband is a Fort Bragg soldier. "We expect that to pick up when everyone's back from leave."

The 82nd Airborne Division headquarters, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Brigade Combat Team and 4th Brigade Combat Team have all spent parts of the past year in Afghanistan.

The deployments varied in length, but all the units, including an additional battalion from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, returned this month.

And after the hugs, balloons, and pictures with family and friends, the rest of the community has also welcomed soldiers back with open arms, according to Fayetteville business leaders, who said the return of soldiers from war is always good news for the community.

"It's certainly a cause for celebration," said Doug Peters, president of the Fayetteville Regional Chamber.

Deployed soldiers don't stop wanting the latest products, even though they may not have access to them, Peters said.

When they return home, that pent-up demand for goods and services is still there and leads many to car dealerships, furniture stores and electronics stores, he said.

"It's an economic uptick," said Peters, who was quick to add that any business boon is a side effect of something much more fulfilling - the return of so many friends, family and neighbors.

"They're home with their families. This gives the community opportunity to relax," he said. "The business community doesn't talk about it as a windfall. We have heroes coming home. We want our soldiers home. We want them with their families."

Owens, a Vietnam War veteran from Roseboro, agreed that the soldiers are more than dollar signs in his eyes.

"In the last 10 years, we've lost some," Owens said, motioning to a newspaper clipping on the wall next to his barber's chair.

The clipping told the story of Sgt. 1st Class Calvin Harrison.

Harrison, 31, of San Antonio, died in late September 2010 in Uruzgan province in Afghanistan.

A Special Forces medical sergeant assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group, he was killed by enemy fire during a combat patrol.

"He was a regular," Owens said. "He would bring his two daughters in with him. Then we looked at the paper one day and he was there."

Owens knows most of his customers return from war, and he's thankful for that.

"I'm just glad they're home," he said. "And I'm pretty sure they're glad to be home, too."

In Afghanistan, the 82nd Airborne soldiers patrolled alongside Afghan forces, flew helicopters, maintained the Army's many war-fighting machines, and provided the command and logistical backbone to support it all.

Back at Fort Bragg, those same soldiers go through days of meetings and training meant to ease their transition back to stateside life.

They are briefed on physical, mental and financial health issues, a division spokeswoman said.

They also get briefings from Fayetteville police, who talk about crime concerns and traffic.

Kathleen Ruppert, a crime prevention specialist, said the goal is to stop the soldiers from being victimized.

"While they've been gone, crime is still here," Ruppert said. "Most are not aware of what has happened recently. And when you bring that many people back into an area, you're always going to see an increase in some type of crime."

Fayetteville police Sgt. Richard Silverest said the return of 9,000 soldiers also will tax the road network, leading to congestion.

"You're going to have more accidents, that's just a given," said Silverest.

In the coming weeks, Fayetteville police will do their part to keep roads like Skibo, Morganton, Cliffdale and Reilly safe. There will be increased patrols, especially during peak travel times, and possibly a few drunken driving checkpoints at night, Silverest said.

"It's almost like the holidays again," he said. "It's going to be an increase. Then when the holidays do come, it'll be even worse."

Soldiers are not bad drivers, Silverest said. And most of the traffic headaches can be solved without police intervention.

"People just have to be a little bit more patient now," Silverest said. "Slow down. Pay attention to the cars around you, in front of you, behind you. Rear-ends are a big problem, but a lot of it boils down to patience."

The congestion will be a welcome change for Teddy Warner.

For months, Warner had lamented the lack of foot traffic coming into H.H. Gregg at 1912 Skibo Road.

Warner, the store manager, had talked to other business managers. While sales were still good - Warner said the Skibo Road store is one of the top stores in the chain - they were down from years past.

That changed a week or two before Labor Day, Warner said.

The time frame coincided with the soldiers returning to Fort Bragg.

"Our traffic definitely has increased the last three to four weeks," Warner said in mid-September. "Every day, we're seeing more traffic than last year."

Warner has managed the Skibo Road store for 2 1/2 years, but he was born and raised in the community and knows all about the ebb and flow of soldiers.

"We feel both sides of deployments," he said.

"The economy doesn't shut down, but it slows down," Warner said of the months that soldiers are deployed.

That cyclical nature has long been the bane and boon for businesses.

"We see it both ways," said Peters, with the chamber. Many businesses, especially those that cater almost exclusively to military members, have a noticeable decrease in sales when a large number of soldiers are deployed, he said.

Restaurants and even nightspots are affected, he said. "There's not much limit to it."

The troop return is a lifeline for Speedy Sewing at 6451 Yadkin Road.

The shop, which also provides dry cleaning and boot shines, has barely scraped by in recent weeks, according to manager Woo Chung, whose wife owns the store.

Chung said the past year has been especially tough, but he is optimistic about the future with so many soldiers back home.

At the nearby Sew N Sew inside SAS Military Surplus, in the same shopping center on Yadkin Road, owner Beth Wallace said she is definitely feeling the effects of the troop return.

Wallace, whose shop opened last year, said she has been swamped in recent weeks, with lines sometimes out to the door.

"All businesses like to be busy," she said. "The line to the door, it happens almost every month."

Wallace moved to Fayetteville from Idaho to open her business after learning of the influx of soldiers caused by a recently completed round of base realignment and closures.

Since then, she's had no regrets, finding a place for her business even with so many potential customers overseas.

Now that they're back, Wallace is giddy.

"Fayetteville is a gold mine," she said. "And now, it just keeps getting better."

Other businesses share her excitement.

"It's been something," said Warner of H.H. Gregg, smiling as he describes the sales traffic. "It's huge for us. It's an extra 5,000 to 10,000 footsteps this month."

About half of the customers at the Fayetteville store are military members, Warner estimates.

"It definitely makes an impact," he said. "I know traffic was down everywhere. Now it's really great."

Tablet computers, televisions and appliances have all sold well, Warner said.

But not everything is flying off the shelves. Typically, it's the high-end merchandise that has become hard to keep in stock.

"They've been gone, but they're smart about what's the latest," Warner said. "They want the bells and whistles. They've done their homework."

Never was that clearer than earlier this month, Warner said.

A young soldier bought a 92-inch projection television and walked out the door with it, with the help of friends.

Typically, such a purchase would be delivered, but this soldier didn't want to wait.

"We barely could get it out the door," Warner said. "When I asked, he said he bought it for his barracks."

"Stuff like that, you don't see anywhere but military towns," Warner said. "The price isn't really a problem. Does it meet their needs? If it does, they don't care how much it costs. Some of these televisions are $9,000, $10,000. It's more expensive than a car.

"And why not? You've been overseas risking your life for your country."