A Bliss-ful Solution
When former U.S. Army officer Andy Haskell found out he was being transferred to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, he was skeptical.
"I'm from Minnesota originally and went to college in New York, and I'd never really been to Texas before, period," Haskell said. "If you'd ask me to point to El Paso on the map, I couldn't do it. I'd heard some things from other people about how I wouldn't like it there, how it's too hot and it's a border town.
"I had all of these things in the back of my mind, and I step off the plane and it was hot, but it wasn't humid. I was comfortable. I started to realize that there are a lot of things to do," he said. "The people are great. It's a real friendly community. My perception was 180 degrees different than what my experience here has been."
Haskell enjoyed the city so much that when he left the military six months ago, he decided to stay in El Paso and now works as the director of business recruitment for the defense sector for the El Paso Regional Economic Development Corporation (REDCo).
The U.S. Army hopes more soldiers will enjoy their El Paso experiences since the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission decided during the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) to nearly triple the Fort Bliss population of 10,000 by relocating nearly 20,000 troops to the base, said Jean Offutt, the public affairs officer for Fort Bliss.
After losing 2,500 troops during the 1995 BRAC, El Paso officials were intent on not losing any more.
"Knowing there was going to be [a new BRAC] process, our elected officials, our community leaders were right there talking to the right congressional folks and visiting the Hill and making contacts," Offutt said. "It was more of, 'This is what Fort Bliss has to offer to this nation.'"
That effort was rewarded when the 2005 BRAC commission ranked Fort Bliss the most important U.S. Army installation in terms of military value. Through BRAC and other Army shuffles, Fort Bliss will have about 30,000 active duty soldiers by 2012, Offutt said.
These units and troops will join the 14 units already stationed at Fort Bliss, as well as the William Beaumont Army Medical Center, the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy, the German Air Force Air Defense School and Joint Task Force North, a U.S. Department of Defense group that handles counterdrug and anti-terrorist operations. In addition to the base's permanent troops, about 2,000 soldiers live on the base temporarily while training at the academy and school.
Aside from the troops transferred by the 2005 BRAC, Fort Bliss received another 4,000 troops in October 2005 from the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Cavalry Division. Nearly 16,000 permanent troops were stationed at Fort Bliss in April 2006. The permanent and temporary troops generate an annual impact of $1.7 million in the local community, according to an April 2006 report by the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University.
"Currently today, $1 in every $4 or $5 that's spent here is a product from Fort Bliss that gets spent in the economy," Haskell said. "When you double the amount of troops, that's going to become even more substantial, and [the economy] is going to become more reliant on Fort Bliss."
Although most of the country has experienced a slowdown in the housing market,
El Paso has been rated one of the most undervalued real estate markets in the country according to CNN, Haskell said.
"Home values are starting to go up and will probably continue that way over the next few years while these troops come in," Haskell said. "Over the last three or four years, home values have increased by 10 to 13 percent each year."
Building a future
The increase in troops is great news for Fort Bliss and El Paso, but it's also a daunting task, Offutt said. Preparing for the troops means more than just providing a place for them to sleep.
"We have on the drawing board to build a huge shopping complex, commissaries, post exchange, small shops, medical facilities, dental facilities, child care and recreational facilities," Offutt said.
And they have a lot to build.
"Whatever we have now, we have to have three times as much by 2011," Offutt said.
Fort Bliss staff members are working on building 1,700 new homes, as well as renovating some older homes on base, but the base will still need 11,000 homes in the El Paso area to handle the influx, Offutt said.
Some of the things on the city's 'to-do' list include building several master-planned communities to provide affordable homes to soldiers while keeping the cost of living down, building an outer loop to Fort Bliss to make it easier for soldiers to get to and from the base, building more schools and making sure there are enough health care professionals, said Richard Dayoub, president of the El Paso Chamber of Commerce.
Fort Bliss is already the second largest civilian employer in the area with more than 6,800 employees, and after the new influx of soldiers, it will probably surpass the El Paso Independent School District, the top employer with 8,700 employees, according to REDCo.
The city also wants to use the base as a way to attract more high-tech companies that will benefit the community, too, Haskell said.
"We don't want it to be restricted to just the Army," he said. "We want it to be focused on future technologies that the public can use as well."
Sun, salsa and soldiers
A 2001 study by Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies found that children who live in homes owned by their families have math scores that are 9 percent higher and reading scores up to 7 percent higher than their renter counterparts.
The quality of life also can be better.
Located to the northeast of El Paso, Fort Bliss has 1.2 million acres of usable space, plus another 800,000 acres for training and maneuvering, making it the perfect location for conducting military exercises and for expansion, Offutt said.
"You have the 2 million acres that are not encroached upon and don't have to worry about the population suddenly being outside the fence line, and you can't do any testing because you're too close to the civilian world," Dayoub said.
Besides being ideal geographically, the community, city leaders, private organizations and individuals all support the military and do everything they can to make the transition into the community easier, Dayoub said.
"Fort Bliss and the soldiers that live there are critical to our community, but it's not just about economic development," Dayoub said. "It's about supporting them as citizens. We want those families whose husbands and wives who are being deployed to say that they want to go home [to El Paso], not that they have to go."
Haskell and his wife have enjoyed their time in El Paso so much that they are considering staying after his wife is discharged from the military in eight years and hope to keep enjoying something he didn't have growing up.
"Two out of three restaurants serve Mexican food here," he said. "I'm from the Midwest, ketchup is spicy to us and there are a lot of green chilies here. But it's okay, I like chilies."