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Ending the boom-and-bust cycle of military towns

The national anthem being sung in the supermarket.

Marc Nigliazzo, the president of Texas A&M University-Central Texas, goes by "Doctor Marc."

Leticia Womack, a gluten-free baker in Killeen, Texas.

The Army announced recently that it plans to eliminate combat brigades at 12 military bases. That’s a total of 80,000 soldiers. The cutbacks come as communities are already dealing with government furloughs. But military towns are trying to keep the old boom-and-bust economy a thing of the past.

Texas’ Fort Hood is like a city. It’s home to more than 40,000 assigned soldiers and tens of thousands of civilian workers. The base brings $25 billion to the Texas economy each year.

But it’s about to lose a brigade. Bill Parry is with the Heart of Texas Defense Alliance (a nonprofit that lobbies on behalf of the economies around Fort Hood). He says that the brigade represents just 7 percent of Fort Hood’s fighting force.

“While I say it could be a lot worse; yes, we could have in fact lost 14 percent of our in-strength,” Parry says. “Or, god forbid, some place like Fort Knox, Ky., which lost 43 percent of its assigned in-strength.”

No one in the supermarket bats an eye as the national anthem is belted out near the produce aisle. It’s part of a small ceremony to recognize veterans who work here. Ed Hill was in the army for 23 years, now he’s the deli manager.

“When I first came here, Killeen barely had a highway,” Hill says. “Now they building bridges in Copperas Cove -- Harker Heights looks like a metropolis! And it wasn’t nothing here at first.”

The town of Killeen is no metropolis. But there is a Target nearby, and a Sam’s Club is on its way. There’s Thai food and chain restaurants, and, now, Leticia Womack’s home bakery. This all seemed unlikely a decade ago, to say the least. But now, residents can drive a few miles east of Tank Destroyer Boulevard, and Womack will sell you gluten-free muffins. (They are delicious, for the record.)

The strip of road that passes south of the base is tacky. You see pawn shops and tattoo parlors, billboards and used car lots. There’s hardly a tree in sight. Patches of grass are baked brown from the Texas heat.

As Bill Parry tells me, these communities give soldiers what they need. Whether it’s health care, roads, or pawn shops, military towns are a lot alike. So it’s a surprise when I drive south and a sleek building rises out of the hills. It’s all glass and limestone. And there’s a second one just like it, under construction next door.

Marc Nigliazzo is the president of Texas A&M University-Central Texas. “Everyone calls me Doctor Marc,” he says, laughing.   Doctor Marc points out this is the only public university for a hundred miles in all directions. In 30 years, he expects to enroll 15,000 students. Folks here worked hard to bring changes like this.

“During the first Gulf War, when families went home and people boarded up their stores,” he says. “I think the area sort of made a decision at that point, that they didn’t want to see that happen again.”

Doctor Marc says Killeen’s town leaders realized that it had to clean up its act. “If you surround us with tattoo parlors and beer joints, then the university will build a wall around itself. That’s what universities do; many have. But you have an incredible opportunity here to integrate the two.”

But not everyone’s convinced by these rough starts at diversification. Leticia Womack, the gluten-free baker lives here in Killeen because of her husband. She knows he may not be in the army forever.

“If he was to get a good job in Houston, we would move back to Houston,” she says.

In the last decade, 70,000 people have come here. But keeping them? That’s the challenge.

Marc Nigliazzo, the president of Texas A&M University-Central Texas, goes by "Doctor Marc."

Leticia Womack, a gluten-free baker in Killeen, Texas.

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