Return of 7,000 Hawaii troops a business surge
|Video: Wahiawa cafe awaits soldiers' return|
By Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Central O'ahu Writer
By Lynda Arakawa
The return of 7,000 Schofield Barracks soldiers from Iraq in coming weeks will be a welcome boost for Wahiawa businesses, which have lost a lot of sales since the soldiers deployed more than a year ago.
The comings and goings of troops over the past several years have become a way of life in Wahiawa, where merchants have grown to expect an ebb and flow of business tied to the deployments. But this homecoming is still as sweet as ever.
"Hallelujah," sighed Margaret "Molly" Walker, owner of Molly's Smokehouse.
Less revenue after the deployment and increasing expenses have cut into profit for Walker's restaurant, which opened on South Kamehameha Highway in 2000. The soldiers' return should increase her business at least 30 percent, she said.
But Walker isn't counting on good times from the influx of soldiers to last long.
"We're excited about these coming back, but you're afraid to get too excited because you need to get yourself ready for another deployment," she said. "No one can really tell us with any real confidence that this is going to be the end of it.
"I try to treat their return as gravy, that this is a luxury for us. I'm not sure it's at the point where I can count on it. So I have to look at other areas of our business to drive us and support us. If I relied strictly on the military as our bread and butter, I'm afraid that we would have failed already."
Businesses have seen a rise and fall in military customers over the years, said Dan Nakasone, board member of the Wahiawa Community and Business Association.
With thousands of soldiers gone, "it's a major impact," he said.
"You can tell, just driving around town you don't see them on the streets. And when they do come back, you do see them on the streets and in the shops."
Most businesses have adjusted and survived by attracting more local customers, he said.
"They have the periods when they come back, and then others will be deploying," he said. "So until it ends, I think that's what it's going to be like."
PEOPLE GETTING READY
About 7,000 Schofield soldiers are set to return to Hawai'i this month and next after finishing more than a year in Iraq.
Their return, however, is offset by the deployment of 4,000 Stryker brigade soldiers from Schofield to Iraq starting in November. Those soldiers are training in California and will return to Hawai'i in October before leaving for Iraq.
But with more soldiers returning than leaving, businesses are looking forward to better times.
"Everybody's kind of getting ready for the soldiers coming back from their long deployment," said Michael Fuse, owner of Michael's Barber Shop on Wilikina Drive. "We're looking forward to more troops being back in Wahiawa again. ... A lot of people have been fixing up stuff that needed to be fixed while the troops were gone."
Since the war started, Fuse has dropped his prices and run specials to attract more local customers, and downsized from two businesses to one.
"It's rough, but thank God that we have the local community here also that we depend on and also that patronize the businesses in the Wahiawa area," he said.
Fuse's barber shop is now running with a "minimum staff" of five employees, but with thousands of soldiers returning, he's considering hiring more workers to handle more customers.
Lisa Choi, owner of Cafe Olive on Kamehameha Highway, also is looking forward to the soldiers' return.
"It's hard to survive," she said. "Wahiawa really depends on Schofield business a lot."
El'Gant Alterations, which opened in Wahiawa in 1990, has cut back on its hours since the soldiers deployed last year, said general manager Peter Nelson.
The soldiers' absence has become a general topic among Wahiawa businesses and others, much like the weather, he said.
"You talk about the weather, and you talk about the troops," he said. "It's like waiting for the weather to change; we're waiting for the troops to come back."
SOME HAVE THRIVED
Not all Wahiawa merchants have been hurting.
Mike Royce, co-owner of Maui Mike's Fire Roasted Chicken on Kamehameha Highway, had braced for tough times when the soldiers left last year. But to his surprise, "we didn't feel it at all."
Royce said he noticed a slight dip in sales when the Stryker brigade soldiers left for training in August, but that the decrease wasn't enough to prompt any changes to the business.
"We've developed a wide enough audience," he said, including customers from outside Wahiawa.
Like Fuse, Royce said he may need to hire extra staff when the soldiers return.
"We're really looking forward to these guys coming back, that's for sure," he said. "We have a lot of really loyal customers in the military. And we miss seeing them. We miss seeing their faces."
Many businesses hurt not just from the deployment of soldiers, but also from the absence of soldiers' families who go to the Mainland during that period, said Walter Benavitz, president of the Wahiawa Community and Business Association.
But it's difficult to focus just on the deployment's impact on merchants when soldiers are fighting abroad, he said.
"It's kind of hard to talk just business when our people ... actually miss the soldiers who are fighting," Benavitz said. The Aug. 22 helicopter crash in northern Iraq that killed 10 Schofield Barracks soldiers is "just a chilling reminder of the sacrifices of our soldiers and their families," he said.
And just yesterday came official word that another Schofield soldier had died in Iraq.
For Wahiawa merchants, their relationship with the military extends beyond just sales. Soldiers have sent Royce's restaurant postcards from Iraq. Walker said she and her employees are on a first-name basis with many soldiers, who consider her restaurant "their home away from home."
"I'm glad to see them back," Walker said. "And I'll pray for them when they're gone again."
Reach Lynda Arakawa at email@example.com.