Gulf ports hope the Navy will hitch a battlewagon to their pier

The United States Navy is dangling a delicious plum over the Gulf coast, and almost any city that can call itself a port is jumping for it. The plum is a base for a seven-ship battle group the Navy wants to establish on the Gulf coast by 1991. The group will be formed around the USS Wisconsin, a World War II-vintage battleship scheduled to be reconditioned. It will be joined by a cruiser, a destroyer, three frigates, and a destroyer tender.

The Navy says the base will have 215 officers, 3,465 enlisted personnel, and 250 civilian employees, and it is expected to attract another 4,000 Navy dependents.

The Navy payroll alone is expected to be $60 million annually, and the base will generate jobs for the port's ship-support businesses and for construction companies that will build the estimated $100 million base and surrounding housing for Navy families.

Fourteen Gulf Coast cities have been drafting proposals to send to the Navy by the January deadline, and the Navy has sent out a study team to look at each one. Capt. James Ridge, who headed the team, says he looked at the Texas cities of Brownsville, Freeport, Corpus Christi, Houston, Galveston, and Port Arthur, as well as Lake Charles and New Orleans, La.; Gulfport and Pascagoula, Miss.; Mobile, Ala.; and Pensacola, Tampa, and Key West, Fla.

Tampa officials expect to spend $120,000 to prepare their presentation for the Navy, and the Chamber of Commerce took Captain Ridge on helicopter, boat, and automobile tours to give him an idea of where the base could be located and what advantages the surrounding area would offer. Meanwhile, the Corpus Christi Chamber of Commerce has raised $110,000 to push its case with the Navy. Some $40 ,000 of that has come from private donations, says Jimmy Lyles, the chamber's executive vice-president.

''We've heard this thing could mean more than $300 million a year for our economy,'' Mr. Lyles says. ''We are especially interested in the jobs that would be created in satellite industries that would supply the base.''

The Navy is looking for an area large enough to berth the seven ships with a channel deep enough for the 42-foot-draft battleship. It also will be examining the distance of the port from potential trouble spots in the Caribbean and Central America.

It also is looking at conveniences the port area would offer, and at nearby federal facilities, such as other military bases, that could support the Navy base.

''The Navy is approaching this as any major economic developer would,'' said W. O. Balanzategui, who is putting together Tampa's proposal.

Captain Ridge won't comment on which city he prefers. His tour was designed to help the cities understand what the Navy wants, he says, so that they can draft proposals for the Navy to review. He says he expects Navy Secretary John Lehman to decide on a site by April.

The Navy is looking for more ports for its ships, because the Reagan administration is building the size of the fleet from its present 527 ships to 600 ships, and because the Navy does not want to have too many ships concentrated in too few places.

The Navy is reactivating four mothballed battleships. One, the USS New Jersey , has already seen action off the coast of Lebanon. It is based in Long Beach, Calif. The USS Iowa will be based in Staten Island, N.Y.

The Navy is searching for a home for a third battleship, the USS Missouri, and is considering Long Beach, San Francisco, and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The Gulf Coast base is the last the Navy will activate. The USS Wisconsin will remain in mothballs at the Philadelphia Navy Yard until 1987, when it is scheduled to be reconditioned in time for the opening of the Gulf base, by 1991.

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