DoD Examines Rules for On-Base Military Spouse Businesses

An Air Force spouse displays crafts at a home business expo. (Photo: U.S. Air Force/ Senior Airman Michael)
An Air Force spouse displays crafts at a home business expo. (Photo: U.S. Air Force/ Senior Airman Michael)

Defense Department officials are holding a weekly working group to examine ways to make it easier for military spouses to operate small businesses out of their on-base homes.

"We have to figure out how to enable military spouses to be the entrepreneurs we know they are. In this age of Etsy and Pinterest, now more than ever, we need to remove barriers to the American spirit called entrepreneurship," Rosemary Williams, who oversees military community and family policy for the DoD, told in a statement.

Williams, who is assisting the working group, is worried that while the DoD encourages military spouses to be creative and pursue employment and entrepreneurship, current rules tie the hands of those who live on base by placing strict restrictions on what businesses they can operate out of their housing.

Currently, military spouses who run any kind of money-making business out of their on-base home are required to register their business on base. Additionally, the types of businesses allowed on each base vary by location. For example, Fort Campbell, Kentucky, specifically prohibits only animal breeding businesses, while Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, prohibits a variety of businesses, including hair salons and personal training.

But the biggest barrier to operating a small business in on-base housing, spouses say, comes from the base Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) and local exchange offices. Both MWR and the exchange are permitted "first right of refusal" for any business looking to run in government-owned buildings, including on-base housing.

If a business causes a conflict with anything either of those entities may operate, the application is likely to be denied. For example, the exchange, by regulation, is permitted to refuse any business that falls under 18 specific categories including "retail stores," "mail order, catalog and ecommerce services," "photo studios" and "barber and beauty shops."

That means any spouse who operates a small business selling hair bows online; participates in one of the wildly popular multi-level marketing companies, such as Scentsy; or runs a photo business out of their home could be denied their request to operate. And that, Williams worries, could squash spouses' ability to start their own businesses.

Officials with the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) said they are participating in the working group and will work with whatever new regulations may result from it.

"The Exchange is participating in a Department of Defense working group that pertains to non-federal entity business operating on military installations," Conner Hammett, a AAFES spokesman, said in a statement. "The Exchange sets its policies in accordance with DoD regulations; as a result, the Exchange will align with any future policy changes enacted by DoD regarding non-federal entity businesses or any other matter."

Navy spouse and veteran Christina Landry has experienced firsthand the problems operating a business on base can bring. Although she had previously received permission to operate her small business, DumBell Fitness, in the housing common areas on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, officials changed their minds in early 2014. Instead, they demanded that she either shut down operations or compete for an official contract to continue, while giving MWR a cut of the profits.

Landry, however, couldn't afford to give MWR the 20 percent of her gross income that they required as part of the bid process. And instead of winning the contract, she was outbid by a different, non-military spouse-owned local company. A protest is ongoing, and in the meantime her company has moved the majority of its fitness classes, which include babysitting for participants' children, to off-base locations, Landry said.

Landry, who said she is encouraged to hear about the working group, believes the rules that keep spouses from operating successful business on base amount to DoD doubletalk.

"There's this underlying tone that 'we support military spouse employment so long as you keep it under the radar and it doesn't draw attention to yourself and it doesn't get that successful,'" she said. "Don't give us lip service that you support us -- really support us," she said.

-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at

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