- Jon Kelley
Once upon a time on B Street, the northernmost route into Fort Carson, local business owners enjoyed a taste of success.
That was before the war in Iraq, before troops from the Army post were deployed overseas and, often, deployed again. It was an easier time, a less worrisome time. But this dependency on the troops is the devil with which these merchants have chosen to dance.
"All of these businesses [on B Street] rely 80 to 90 percent on the GIs," says Rob Nielsen, general manager of The Army Store, an army surplus store located on B Street. "It's good and bad."
When it's good, the roads and parking lots are filled with cars. And the establishments that line this road dry cleaners, liquor stores, strip clubs, restaurants, convenience stores, the ever-alluring Oriental massage parlors similarly find their buildings busy.
But the current times are bad times. The only cars on the road these days are those headed to the post and rarely do they stray from their routes. The lots are mostly empty. The stores are filled largely with bored employees leaning against the walls and counters in their shops.
"When people are gone and people are here, you can tell the difference in business," says Mike Stone, the manager of A-Z Masters 2 Tattooing and Piercing. "It's real obvious."
One would imagine that with the Fort Carson expansion looming on the horizon, B Street proprietors would be optimistic. But after years of weathering ups and downs near Fort Carson, it's the "downs" that play over and over again in their memories.
To a largely disenchanted lot, the recent word of expansion seems almost too good to be true. They want to believe. They're hopeful. But recently, smaller-scale promises of incoming or returning troops have brought little sustainable growth.
"I've heard it before," says Rhonda Rockwell, owner of Stratmoor Liquors, "and it just seems like it doesn't happen."
Compared with the neighboring businesses, Rockwell's has had it good. Her liquor store, which has boasted modest foot traffic at best, is perhaps the busiest on the entire street.
"It's been a ghost town," says Nielsen of the rest of the street.
In the past, Nielsen has made inventory orders on an every-other-day basis, spending between $10,000 and $20,000 each month. Over the past two months, he's made a single order, spending only $3,000 total.
He's seen other area surplus stores, most notably Surplus City in Old Colorado City, die off in the past year. While he's thankful that his store has been able to hang on, the tenuousness of his situation has made him hesitant to do much in preparation for what's to come.
"I'm expecting [the expansion], but I'm not basing anything off of it," Nielsen says.
For what it's worth: Serious doubts seem to be misplaced this time.
"The 4th [Infantry Division] is coming," says Brian Binn, of the Chamber of Commerce's division of military affairs. "They've already started to arrive, and they will keep coming over the next three years."
The federal government has already issued Colorado Springs a half-million dollar grant to study the potential effects of the expansion. It's tough to imagine that money would be allocated without plans to follow through on their proposal, Binn says.
For now, the B Street businesses will play the wait-and-see game. If more business comes, great; if not, at least they didn't get their hopes up.
"[The troops] have been coming forever," says Lionel Stepp of Awesome Ink tattoo parlor. "That's the story of our lifetime."