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Business Booming As Oklahoma Town Prepares For Influx Of New Residents

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LAWTON, Okla. (AP) While workers created a cloud of dust grinding concrete on the floor of a new loft condominium in the heart of this southwest Oklahoma city, tile setter Mike Call summed up the future of the city with three simple words.

"Business is good," said the easygoing Call, covered with dust and sporting a pair of worn knee pads. "We're swamped. We've got no complaints when it comes to work."

Lawton, with its intricate ties to nearby Fort Sill, is bracing for the arrival of an estimated 11,000 new residents over the next five years, including military, civilian and contract employees and their families.

Most of the new residents will be soldiers moving to Lawton-Fort Sill as part of the Pentagon's Base Realignment and Closure process, or BRAC, and efforts to restructure the military.

"There's an excitement in the community that this is coming," said Mayor John Purcell. "We've been growing steadily, but this is a big shot in the arm when we get more than 10,000 people coming at once.

"It's a problem a lot of cities would like to have."

As military and city officials scurry to build infrastructure and housing, new residents are only beginning to dribble into this Comanche County city of about 94,000 people. But while the people haven't yet arrived, business already is booming for local contractors, builders and developers.

From Jan. 1, 2005, to October 2006, an estimated 5,000 housing units were in various stages of planning and construction within the city limits, including a handful of apartment complexes that are going up across the city, said city manager Larry Mitchell.

Evidence of Lawton's growth and plans for its rebirth are scattered across a conference room table inside the office of Mike Brown, the owner of a commercial construction company and a former city councilman.

Aerial photographs of the city stretch across one of the walls in his office as he pulls out another map, one with a plan that city leaders sought for revitalizing the city's downtown area with parks, loft apartments, retail space and land set aside for a Department of Defense campus and an arena.

"From an economic standpoint, we've found we want to attract high-paying jobs," Brown said. "Well, what do people who have high-paying jobs want? They want to have a place where they can live, work and play. This new urbanism is the hottest thing going right now."

The next phase of the downtown revitalization took place Tuesday, Feb. 13, when the city council obtained a $9.5 million line of credit to acquire a dilapidated, 12-block section of homes and businesses just northeast of the downtown area.

Local voters also appear to be doing their part to prepare the city for future changes. In 2004, voters approved the school district's first bond issue in more than two decades -- a $30 million proposal for construction of security upgrades, new classrooms and renovations of existing schools.

While Lawton Superintendent Barry Beauchamp says more improvements will be needed to handle the influx of new students, he said he's confident voters will be willing to help.

"We will need to expend some money on facilities ... but that's a much better position to be in than deciding what to do about losing a billion dollar industry," Beauchamp said. "We'll step up and meet the challenge."

Also in 2004, city voters approved renewing a 1 1/4-cent sales tax for seven years, expected to generate nearly $80 million, to improve roads and sewer lines and fund the construction of new water treatment plant that's being constructed on the city's southeast side.

"The new southeast plant gives us a lot more flexibility and future treatment capacity," said Mitchell, the city manager. "It really solves our treatment-capacity issues for the next 30 or 40 years."

In addition, the city council voted to hold another election in April on a proposed 3/8-cent sales tax for seven years, which would generate an additional $24 million, for more improvements to infrastructure and public safety.

City leaders also have taken steps to combat Lawton's reputation as a seedy military town with problems connected to crimes involving gangs, prostitution and drugs, including prohibiting topless bars within city limits.

Brown, the former councilman, acknowledged he recently experienced firsthand the city's reputation when a traveler next to him on a flight recalled unfavorably his visit to Lawton more than a decade ago.

"When people say that to me, I tell them, 'You haven't seen us lately.' I'm confident developers are seeing Lawton differently now," Brown said. "You can't let those kinds of comments go unchecked. We need to encourage them to come here and see for themselves."
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