By SUSANNE M. SCHAFER
SUMTER, S.C. - Advance forces of Gen. George Patton's famed Third Army have begun leaving Atlanta and moving to new quarters on an Air Force base in central South Carolina, an invasion of Army green uniforms that is sparking hopes of an economic boomlet in this city of 37,000.
It's brought a welcome surge of activity for real estate agents who've struggled during the recession and sparked some competition between them and apartment owners looking to rent to the newcomers.
"I had six agents out with Army people scouting houses last week and will probably have at least that many next week," said Debbie Bowen, broker-in-charge of the ERA Wilder real estate firm, who said she thinks the shift will perk up the area's sluggish market.
"2009 was rock bottom for us," said Bowen. "Indicators of the past few months show us things may be on the upswing."
In May, the Third Army expects to open the doors of a new $93 million headquarters built over the past two years. About 1,200 officers, senior enlisted men and women, civilian workers and contractors will be working by Sept. 1, when offices in Atlanta officially close.
As many as 650 families could come along as the Army wraps up the shift ordered in 2005 as part of the Pentagon's national base realignment and closure process. Housing decisions are left to each family, said Col. Robert Young, who is overseeing the relocation.
"The Army won't make a family move. Their decision will be based on their own economic situation, where the kids might be in school, if they are thinking of retiring in South Carolina," Young said.
Still, the community is hoping many will choose to make the region their home.
Hand-painted banners saying "Welcome Third Army!" flutter in church yards and fly from apartment complex balconies.
So many have sprouted up in the past few weeks that the Rev. John Sorrells of Crosspoint Baptist Church said he's concerned those driving by might think churches are in competition for new members, or only interested in the economic impact of the military.
"Our heart's interest is to be a welcoming community, and show them we are supportive of our military," said Sorrells, whose church has about 400 members. "We welcome the Army, these new members of our community, but it's interesting how the whole community has embraced that symbol" of the banners, he said.
A former commander at Shaw, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Tom Olsen, joked he's concerned the banners might cause hurt feelings among the 24,000 active duty and civilian Air Force men and women at Shaw.
"Maybe a few should say, 'All military welcome,"' said Olsen with a smile. "The Air Force turns over twice as many people every year."
Olsen, who was the No. 2 Air Force commander in the Persian Gulf during the first war against Iraq, said the move brings together the Army and Air Force units that deploy to the Mideast and southwest Asia.
"Over the last 10 years, they've become very, very close," said Olsen, who also has worked as part of the community's military support committee to stave off any base closures and improve community-military relations.
Shaw is the headquarters for the 9th Air Force, which is responsible for 350 aircraft. The Third Army's 15,000 soldiers and civilians - one-third of whom can expect to be stationed a year at a time in the Mideast, Iraq or Afghanistan - are the planners and logistical support units for other Army units in the region.
Olsen said the Third Army has a command structure weighted with senior officers and enlisted men and women. That means they may be bringing older children, working spouses, dual-career military couples or even those close to retirement who may want to stay in the community.
And because much of the older military housing on Shaw is slated for renovation in the coming years, Army families will probably live off base. Some may decide to remain where they are, if they are coming from other Army installations, he noted.
"They're not newbies," said Olsen. "They won't just parachute in here. They will be checking things out before they make their decisions about where they want to live."
Figures provided by the South Carolina Realtors Association show 885 homes were sold in Sumter in 2010, down from 2,041 homes sold in 2006. But the median price for homes sold in Sumter was up 5 percent over the same period to $128,685 from $122,000 in 2006.
The median price in 2010 was the highest it had been in the past five years, the association said.
Army spouse Lisa Bannister said she and her husband have always rented in their seven previous moves over 17 years in the service, and chose to do so again.
But Bannister said she has found work as a physical therapist and her two teens seem pleased in a private school.
"I have a very mobile job," said the 43-year-old. "We've had a very positive experience so far."
Army Staff Sgt. Maria Salcido, who manages video teleconferences for the Third Army, said she and her Army husband decided to purchase a home in Sumter's historic district near downtown, marked by its refurbished Opera House.
"We prefer an older-style home," she said, adding, "And we like the restaurants, the ones with Saturday brunches especially."
Real estate agent Bowen said her firm is getting multiple inquiries from Army families over the internet.
One couple purchased a house sight-unseen in order to get into the neighborhood they wanted, she said.
"I was a bit nervous about it, and so were they, but it seems to be working out," said Bowen with a laugh.