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With fewer US troops around, Baumholder adjusts to a new normal

Numerous repairs and upgrades are under way at the U.S. Army's Smith Barracks in Baumholder, Germany. Once slated for closure, the base is now playing catch-up with improvements that weren't done when it was thought the base would close, the base commander said.

BAUMHOLDER, Germany — For half a century, Americans outnumbered locals in this hilly, German town, filling bars and restaurants on evenings and weekends as they spilled out of the U.S. Army barracks that dominate the landscape.

Not anymore.

For the first time in five decades, said Mayor Peter Lang, Germans outnumber Americans here, and locals want to know if things will go back to the way they were.

“People in downtown Baumholder, they ask me always, ‘What will happen with the Americans?’” Lang said. “This is a question I always have in my mind.”

The question has echoed through the town’s winding streets since 2004, when the Army said it would close the base, the town’s largest employer and bulwark of the local economy.

But Lang remains optimistic for the town’s future, both because of later decisions and rumors that more soldiers might move in. His efforts are focused on keeping American troops here, not attracting other investors.

“There is no ‘Plan B,’ ” he said.

So far, Uncle Sam has obliged.

In 2008, the Army announced the base here would endure, but with a caveat. The garrison’s primary unit, a 4,500-strong combat brigade, would inactivate. Other units would move in, but the numbers wouldn’t balance out. Officially, when all is said and done, the town will have fewer than half the number of American soldiers and family members it had before.

That plan is more than halfway complete.

A year ago, the 4,500 soldiers of the now-inactivated 170th Infantry Brigade Combat Team were leaving Baumholder in droves, and many locals were on edge, waiting to see how the drawdown would affect the economy and character of their small hill town.

Now, the base’s population is creeping up toward what Army officials say is an “end state” of about 2,000 soldiers, and many locals are adjusting to a new normal that is neither as prosperous as it was nor as dire as some had predicted.

Over the winter, the number of soldiers in Baumholder dropped to about 400.

“It was bleak,” said Lt. Col. Michael Sullivan, commander of the garrison.

It felt like a ghost town, said Heiko Bomersbach, a mechanic and salesman at The B-site bicycle shop, not far from the main gate of the Army’s Smith Barracks.

But about 1,000 more soldiers have moved into Baumholder since the beginning of the year, along with their families, Sullivan said.

That, Lang said, is what he was told would happen.

There aren’t many Americans walking the streets anymore, “but our shop is still running pretty good,” Bomersbach said as he worked on a customer’s mountain bike.

To Bomersbach and others raised alongside American GIs, the town isn’t what it used to be, but they’re not dwelling on that.

“You can’t change it,” said Dennis Whitson, who does piercings at Jörg’s Tattoo and Piercing Studio just off the town’s main drag. “There’s no reason to turn around and whine about it.”

Still, it’s impossible not to notice the absence of Americans, he said.

When the 170th was here, soldiers would regularly wander in and check out the tattoo shop, make appointments to get inked and even buy jewelry for piercings, Whitson said. Nowadays, that almost never happens.

But business is nevertheless good, he said, thanks almost entirely to a growing pool of European customers, including some from Belgium and Luxembourg, an hour or more to the north.

That’s the case at the B-Site bike shop as well, said Bomersbach.

Other shops are more reliant on Americans.

Mai Hien, a former American soldier who settled in Baumholder a few years ago after leaving the Army, owns USA Nails, whose clientele is almost entirely made up of GI wives and German women who work on base.

Almost since moving in, he’s planned for the drawdown. A year ago, when the 170th and the majority of his customer base left, he said he was ready to bolt if things went south.

“But as of right now, we’re still doing OK, can still pay the bills and everything,” he said.

Across the street, though, Didar Albayrak’s restaurant — Cihan’s Kebab Haus — is struggling.

“We are waiting now until the end of August, early September,” she said. If business doesn’t pick up, “ then we will close.”

The town’s Subway sandwich shop, frequented by American GIs on their lunch break, closed in the last month.

And nightlife is struggling, Whitson said.

“When I first got here, I went out on a Friday night with our provost marshal,” Sullivan said. “Two in the morning, checked out all the clubs to see where all the hot spots were. Huge difference between then and now in terms of what’s available. We’ve seen, unfortunately, a lot of businesses go away downtown.”

“But to be honest with you,” Sullivan said, “the quality businesses that have been there for 30-40 years, are still there.”

“Things have changed,” said Lang, the mayor. “But the change is not that big like it might have been” had the garrison shut down completely, as is happening in other American garrisons in Germany, such as Schweinfurt and Bamberg.

“In the end, I think it’s OK. It’s good for the city of Baumholder.”

His optimism is partly bolstered by rumors that more soldiers are coming.

A German colonel who runs the massive tank and artillery training area adjacent to Baumholder told reporters in June that the U.S. Army planned to move a 750-man air defense artillery unit here from nearby Kaiserslautern.

And a survey team scouted Baumholder earlier this year, Lang said, along with other bases, as a possible site for stationing U.S. Special Forces.

American officials would not speak directly to plans of moving more soldiers to Baumholder.

Sullivan said “there have been feasibility studies conducted with U.S. Army Europe’s concurrence” to look at what bases in USAREUR are feasible for the possible relocation of elements working in support of U.S. Africa Command.

“We were one of the bases that were looked at. I couldn’t tell you what the results were. We are very confident, though, based on our infrastructure, our support network and our training areas, that I think we are a viable candidate if somebody was looking to relocate a unit here,” he said.

The base languished for four years after the Army announced Baumholder would close. But the improvements here are plentiful, despite fiscal constraints caused by sequestration.

Streets and buildings are undergoing major overhauls. A major renovation of one of the community’s two day care centers was recently finished. It won’t open, though, unless the population increases dramatically. The other day care center is only at about 70 percent of capacity, Sullivan said.

But they’re ready for more soldiers, if the Pentagon sends them.

“We have two battalion sets of buildings, which includes battalion headquarters, barracks rooms, company headquarters, that are currently available,” Sullivan said.

The base is also adjacent to one of NATO’s largest training areas, which draws coalition forces from across Europe for live fire training with small arms, artillery and armored vehicles.

“I think we are a great place for any unit to come here,” Sullivan said. “Because we do have the capacity and we have that training capability” that other American bases in Europe don’t have.

“If such a thing would happen,” Lang said, “it would be really good for us.”

millham.matthew@stripes.com
Twitter: @mattmillham

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