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Shops Fight Own Battle as Patrons Leave Area : Economy: Businesses from game shops to discount stores to car dealerships say they’re hurt by troop deployment.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A few miles from the sprawling Camp Pendleton base, a little game shop has for eight years been a favorite hangout of Marines with a penchant for super-hero comics or darts.

Now, of the 450 soldiers who regularly ordered games and comics from I Love Games Too!, all are deployed in the Persian Gulf, said owner Doris Schwartz.

“Ninety-five percent of my business were Marines, and 100% of them are gone,” Schwartz said. She is holding more than $18,000 in back-ordered merchandise for soldiers who, in most cases, cannot pay.

The store’s plight is shared by other local businesses since the deployment of thousands of troops to the Persian Gulf. From vacant apartments in San Clemente to reduced numbers at Irvine’s annual Harvest Festival, nearly every sector of the business community has been hit.

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The depleted ranks of Marines at El Toro, Irvine City Manager Paul O. Brady Jr. said, will have a definite economic impact.

“We have noted a definite decline in the amount of Marine activity at certain kinds of businesses, and retail sales are down generally,” said Brady.

Stores such as Mervyn’s, Target and Price Saver have all indicated a noticeable decrease in sales to military families, Brady said.

Don Gillet, an assistant manager for Price Saver in Irvine, said, “We’re seeing fewer military families, and it has hurt our business.”

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Jacquie Ellis, executive director of the Irvine Chamber of Commerce, said more and more “help wanted” signs are springing up around town, a reflection of the two-fold importance of the troops as both consumers and employees.

“Many businesses employed Marines on their off-duty hours, and along with the lagging clientele, it has made a major difference,” Ellis said.

Slowly but steadily, say business leaders, local economies are shrinking.

Real estate agents in San Clemente report the vacancy rate hovering at around 25%, up from 10% at the same time last year, and many landlords are dropping rents to bargain rates.

Auto dealers also report slack business, especially in San Clemente, where sales are down as much as 50% from last year’s levels.

“All our retail departments--sales, parts and service--have been affected,” said George Khachadoorian, general sales manager at the Hacienda Ford dealership in San Clemente who reported a 40% decline over the previous year’s sales. “With the crisis in Iraq, the general public is kind of on edge, too.”

Khachadoorian said he knew of one San Clemente motorcycle dealer who had gone out of business because of slow sales.

Businesses such as restaurants, pizza parlors, barbershops, dry cleaners and small grocers that cater to Marines at local bases have been especially hard hit.

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The popular Knowl-Wood Home of the World’s Best Hamburgers restaurant in Irvine has reported a sharp drop in business from the nearby El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

“It’s much slower at both lunch and dinner,” said an assistant manager who did not want her name used. “We haven’t had to cut back yet, and this time of the year tends to be bad anyway, so we’ll just have to wait and see.”

The local economy is not just being pinched by the loss of troops; in many cases, spouses and children have also abandoned military bases. One base official described Camp Pendleton as a “ghost town,” making a further dent in the surrounding communities.

“When the soldiers started leaving, a lot of families thought it would be for quite a while, and they packed up and left,” Camp Pendleton spokeswoman Cpl. Linda MacTavish said of the 12,700 base dependents. “Others returned to their own homes for the holidays and have not come back.”

For Doris Schwartz, the departure of troops and their families has meant a personal as well as financial loss.

Schwartz lost a son in Vietnam and describes herself as a staunch anti-war activist, but she also stands “100% behind the troops.”

She is a member of San Clemente’s Human Resources Committee who is known as the “mother of Camp Pendleton” for her efforts to entertain and counsel troops. She and her husband are both therapists--her husband is a clinical social worker, and she specializes in play therapy--and often act as personal counselors for many of the young soldiers and their families, keeping the store’s game room open 24 hours a day on weekends.

“Every time I helped one of these guys (my son) was there,” she said recently, standing in her nearly empty shop amid T-shirts, comic books, puzzles and knickknacks.

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In October, the store completed nearly $5,000 in renovations to accommodate more business, but Schwartz now worries that it will be a long time before she sees a return on the investment.

“We’ve tried to get the word out to let new guys (who undergo training at Camp Pendleton) know we are here, but they only stay six to eight weeks,” she said. “Our business is founded on troops who stay two to three years.”

Those customers--hooked on comic books such as the Punisher, whose hero Capt. Frank Castle, when not avenging some wrong as a super-hero just happens to be a Camp Pendleton officer--are a loyal group.

Schwartz said she could count on her regular customers to spend from $100 to $120 per paycheck for such exotic items as Japanese comic books and oversize European jigsaw puzzles, which can become collectors’ items and are used by many of the troops as investments.

Many of the regulars have tried to help from afar, making arrangements for family members to make partial payments. Earlier in the day, one mother had brought in a check for $100 on a $400 order that has been waiting for her son, Schwartz said.

Nonetheless, Schwartz said she will keep most of her items in stock in anticipation of returning, comic book-starved troops. And not all is grim at the store, she noted.

“We have a dart board with a picture of (Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein on it, and we have to put up another one because it’s been destroyed already.”


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