Negev Towns Gearing Up for Influx From Israel's Center

Sprawling new army bases and a high-tech park in Be’er Sheva will draw new residents - but is the south ready to absorb them?

Southern Israeli cities and towns found themselves in a novel situation last month at an open house for military personnel, an event that could become routine in the next few years. They were vying among themselves in luring the thousands of economically secure households expected to relocate to the region over the next decade thanks to three huge military bases going up in the Negev.

Manning booths and handing out promotional material, representatives from Arad, Dimona, Yeruham, Ofakim and other localities rose to the challenge, presenting everything they have to offer − from the availability of lots for building homes to good track records for high-school matriculations and enlistment rates to elite military units.

It is still too early to judge the outcome, but the Defense Ministry’s administration for coordinating the move south and the Israel Defense Forces’ manpower directorate, which together organized the event, deemed it a success. For some time they’ve been trying to harness as many parties as possible in expanding opportunities for relocating south and serving the families of career soldiers when the time comes, and were happy to see that the penny’s finally dropped − at least at the local authority level.

“Our goal is get supply to grow so that career military personnel have maximal options and to encourage more quality people from the center [of the country], such as workers in the high-tech industry developing here, to come,” says Yonat Martin, head of the division for civilian support structure at the administration. “It’s ultimately quite a mission to move families from the center to the south, and you want the people you’re encouraging to move to have as large and diversified a supply as possible.”

The number of households the south will absorb in the years to come doesn’t just depend on the transfer of IDF bases to the Negev, but even more on the government’s success in turning Be’er Sheva into a major hub of cyber industry. Three leading companies in this field, IBM, Lockheed Martin and EMC, have announced the opening of cyber research and development centers in the city’s high-tech park, where 500 people already work. In its final configuration the park should house around 10,000 workers and, along with supporting businesses from accounting firms to restaurants, could mean a serious boost for jobs in the southern region.

In its initial stages the transfer of army bases will actually require just a relatively small number of housing units. The Defense Ministry’s administration for the move south estimates that Ir Habahadim, the concentration of military training facilities being built near Negev junction, will entail the relocation of just 500 military families to the area. Most of the thousands of people who will serve at the massive base won’t need permanent accommodations in the south.

The bulk of the migration provided by the defense establishment will take place with the opening of a cyber base in Be’er Sheva and an intelligence base near Shoket junction, which will bring in a projected 6,000 career soldiers and their families.

“We’re talking about much wider circles moving to the Negev than just the IDF,” says Martin. “This is a unique opportunity for the country to propel the Negev forward. Most of the land going up for sale isn’t being marketed to career soldiers in particular, but we have a huge available planned inventory that can be released. Therefore it’s important to us that as many companies as possible hurry and make the move, both to increase the housing supply and to have additional high-quality people going south.”

The question is what housing opportunities are available for anyone interested in becoming part of a region that until now has suffered from terrible public relations which often, frankly, isn’t unwarranted. “Building houses isn’t the problem,” says Yeruham Mayor Michael Biton. “The challenge is making people want to live here. First of all, this means investing in education and many other things like jobs for the spouses of military personnel who arrive.”

Yeruham is so far the only place in the south that has decided to dedicate itself to housing military families. This probably isn’t coincidental, considering it’s the closest town to the enormous training base that will begin operating by the end of the year, just a 10-minute drive away.

The municipality’s economic arm is plugging a project of private homes called Tzahala − the same name as the northern Tel Aviv neighborhood originally set up to house the military brass of a previous generation − where 108 half-dunam lots are earmarked for military personnel, 75% for sale and the remaining 25% for rent. The land was transferred a year ago by the Israel Lands Administration to Yeruham’s economic corporation in a three-sided deal that also involved the Defense Ministry. The blueprints for the project were recently approved, according to Biton, and marketing has gotten underway.

“In the first stage we’ll start building 50 units, and then continue in line with the interest generated,” says Biton. “We are giving army personnel at Ir Habahadim priority but also targeting anyone serving at existing bases.”

Dimona, a bit further away at 25 kilometers, is another city expected to absorb some of the military families heading south once the training base opens. Many readers might be surprised to learn that prices in the city have risen substantially over the past few decades, with the average four-room apartment passing the 800,000 shekel ($226,400) mark while finished single-family houses in the Tzamarot project are going for 1.5 million to 1.6 million shekels. Lots are being marketed at 350,000 to 400,000 shekels in the northern neighborhood and for just 270,000 to 350,000 shekels in the Hashachar neighborhood.

Here too the local authority is actively trying to take advantage of the growth potential and not let matters slide. In a meeting held about a month ago with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon it was decided to conduct a feasibility study on establishing a military neighborhood in the city. “The expectation is for an increase of about 5,000 housing units to be marketed in the city over the next few years,” says Dimona municipality spokesman Amos Sarig.

Isn’t it hard to attract a good class of people when competing with prestigious communities like Omer or Meitar?

“A colonel past the age of 40 won’t move south in any case,” responds Sarig. “He’ll complete his few years until retirement in the central region and commute south on a daily basis. By contrast, a young army officer in his 20s won’t be able to buy in Omer or Meitar, even if he wants to. His alternative is Dimona, and it’s him we want. Certainly a fight is developing between the municipalities. When you absorb a career soldier with a family you need to find employment for the spouse and, of course, invest in education.”

Available land

Arad is less relevant for Ir Habahadim, but could become a desirable location with the opening of the intelligence base at Shoket junction. Land there for building a house is priced at 120,000 to 150,000 shekels.

“Right now there’s a move to sell 60 lots in the Renanim neighborhood, with half of them earmarked for local residents,” says city spokesman Yehoshua Ashkenazi. “After this is completed, in about a year, phase 3 − also with 60 lots − will commence, geared mainly toward army personnel.” He adds that the city now has five new multi-story projects underway following a dry spell lasting many years, with four-room apartments priced around 700,000 shekels.

Obviously there is also Be’er Sheva, the city slated to host the telecommunications base and the most substantial alternative of all for setting up house. Plenty of real estate action is going on in Israel’s southern metropolis, including a neighborhood of private homes dedicated to army personnel called Neot Shibolim located in the city’s northeastern Ramot quarter. So far 60 lots have been sold out of a total of 180 planned in the project, an initiative of the army’s manpower division.

But despite the strong awakening in the real-estate markets of Be’er Sheva and the southern region, the absence of one thing still troubles the Defense Ministry administration for the move south, says Martin: the lack of any large-scale rental housing in the city or its surroundings. “Most families are having a very hard time making a clear-cut decision from the outset to move south, including the decision to buy a home,” she explains. “Many want to make the move gradually, as I’m sure is the case for high-tech workers too, so we’d very much like to see a rental project with several thousand apartments in Be’er Sheva that would serve both us and the employees of companies headed south.”

IDF