US towns brace for base-closing wave
The Pentagon is expected to announce a large number of closings among its 425 domestic bases.
As a young boy Dennis Estes relied on the late afternoon whistle that sounded from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard to know that dinnertime was approaching. Decades later, the whistle still sounds several times a day from the Piscataqua River between Maine and New Hampshire. But it could soon fall silent.Skip to next paragraph
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The shipyard may be one of the military installations across the country included in the Pentagon's newest wave of base closings - the first in a decade. Residents here are bracing for a possibility that would impact them in ways both big and small - from more than 4,500 lost jobs to discarded rituals, such as the trill of a whistle, that are the fabric of daily life in this coastal community.
"I don't know what this town is going to do," says Mr. Estes, a former town councilor whose family has worked at the shipyard for at least three generations.
Friday morning, the wait is expected to be over. After months of speculation, the Pentagon is set to release the roster of bases scheduled for closure as part of an ambitious - and controversial - plan for a leaner and more flexible military in the 21st century.
For communities on the list, it will mark the start of a summer of frantic lobbying to save the jobs, money, and prestige that a US base brings.
Yet for the wisest towns, experts say, the shift marks the beginning of something else altogether - planning for life after the installation is gone. From Colorado plains to Indiana cornfields, history suggests that communities have suffered less when they have been willing to let go and move forward - in many cases coming up with new plans for the site even before the base-closing list is finalized.
"The process should really begin on Friday," says Tim Ford, executive director of the Association for Defense Communities in Washington. Communities on the list "need to start putting together a Plan B."
For now, however, the temptation is to try to reverse the Pentagon's decision. Kittery received a $175,000 grant from the Department of Defense to outline the steps the town will take if the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is on the list. But most in town are focused on saving the installation.
A sign hangs from a local pub reading "Let's all help save our shipyard."
Other residents have held rallies and letter-writing campaigns. Much of the effort has been driven by the Seacoast Shipyard Association. But "there has been a lot of support, even from people who have nothing to gain," says local resident John McCollett.
After all, gain is still possible before the final deadline. Friday's list is simply a starting point. Now it goes to the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission, a nonpartisan panel of experts appointed by President Bush earlier this year. Its members will review the Pentagon's preferences and amend them. Congress will review the final list in the fall, voting only up or down - it cannot make individual amendments.
Each affected community will have a chance to state its case before the panel. "That shouldn't be undervalued," says Mr. Ford. Yet in previous rounds, the commission has traditionally overturned only about 10 percent of the Pentagon's suggestions.
Founded in 1800, the Kittery shipyard first built wooden-hulled sailing vessels. It now refits and refuels nuclear-powered submarines. For town residents, attempts to close the shipyard are as much a part of the local climate as harsh New England winters.
On a recent day, cranes moved through the air, transporting parts and equipment to the shops working on two submarines. But few argue that the base's significance has not declined over the years. During World War II the payrolls exceeded 20,000 employees. Decades ago, residents had to govern their lives around yard traffic. But the numbers of those working there have gradually diminished.