In Maine, a shipyard that endures

Bath watches a Navy ship's christening - and clings to its way of life

It is a brilliant, sunny day, and the Kennebec River's dark waters ripple under a full wind. A woman cracks a champagne bottle on the bow of the Nitze DDG 94, a massive gray destroyer whose radar mast casts a long shadow on the shipyard. At the sound of a hollow pop, red and blue confetti shoots into the air. The Navy band plays "Anchors Away."

The men and women at Bath Iron Works (BIW) have spent 4 million hours over three years piecing together the most technologically advanced ship in the Navy. Yet even amid this most American of scenes, with its echoes of 1950s innocence and patriotism, the event is tinged with desperation.

"Just looking at the Nitze would convince anyone here that we need more Bath ships - many, many, many, many more ships," said Sen. Susan Collins (R), during remarks from the platform.

For 400 years, the pine-covered banks of the Kennebec have been home to one of the nation's most thriving shipbuilding cultures. And for more than a century, the BIW has constructed many of the keels, hulls, engines, and masts of America's commercial and Naval fleets - ships that rode the waves of industrialization, immigration, and some of the most brutal military conflicts in history.

Yet as commercial ship building has all but disappeared from the US and military contracts have moved south, the future of this historic shipyard and the town that it supports are in doubt.

"We're constantly nervous about the future," says Lisa Cook, who has worked at BIW for 18 years. "[That anxiety] is a way of life here."

An inextricable identity with BIW

Early settlers in what is now Maine took immediately to shipbuilding. Thirteen years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, the Popham Colony at the mouth of the Kennebec here had already begun to build its first ship, the Virginia.

Its purpose: to take the colonists back to England.

Because of Bath's key role as a commercial shipping port, by the late 19th century merchants in Asia and Europe spoke of the coastal city in the same breath as Boston and New York. BIW built its first vessel in 1890, and has since been awarded more than 425 shipbuilding contracts, including 245 military ships.

During the nation's massive military buildup of the 1980s, BIW won the lead design and construction contract for a new class of Arleigh-Burke destroyers. The Nitze is the 23rd in its class.

But that contract is ending, and the company recently received some bad news: Its main competitor, the Ingalls Shipyard in Mississippi, will be the lead contractor for the next generation of destroyers. In part, say observers, it's political: With two powerful Republican senators in Mississippi, Maine's congressional delegation has less leverage in lobbying for local projects.

"They aren't at the head of the line when goodies are passed out by the Republican leadership," says Donald Daniel, a visiting professor of international relations at Georgetown University in Washington.

'A scary relationship with the yard'

BIW has already downsized its workforce from 10,000 in the mid '80s to 6,700 now. Employees, Bath residents, and most anyone with a significant interest in Maine's economy worry about additional layoffs in the next few years if the dearth of work continues.

"We talk about it daily, almost hourly," says Matthew Brackley, an electrician who's building a house one hour north, with the expectation that he will work for the shipyard until retirement.

That concern is shared by many of the 9,000 residents of Bath, where huge Victorian homes on hillsides overlook the shipyard and a quaint commercial area. Without "the yard," they concede, it's hard to imagine how "the city of ships" could exist. Residents follow the minutia of business at BIW with an intensity more common to mill towns of the 19th century.

"We have kind of a scary relationship with the yard," says Steve Lardie, who owns the Hobby Shop and has lived in Bath for 31 years. "Any negative change there would be very detrimental to Bath."

Long-term trends don't look good. After the cold war, Congress cut the Navy's fleet in half while reducing production capacity by only a third - leaving shipyards with more employees than they need. In addition to Mississippi, major shipyards in Virginia and Connecticut continue to employ thousands.

While Bath is known for its large surface ships like the Arleigh-Burke destroyers, the Pentagon is showing a preference for smaller, more agile combat ships. "There are other [states] that clearly seem to be in a better position than Maine," says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Downturn vs. determination

More layoffs at BIW would send shock waves through Bath, a town whose city hall is capped by the weather vane of a multimasted ship. BIW has a payroll of $300 million, helping sustain this economy of antique stores, coffee shops, and seafood restaurants.

A downturn here would be felt across much of the state. More than 400 businesses in Maine rely on BIW for contracts on everything from paint to piping.

Because of that, and because thousands here cling to Bath's historical identity, many adamantly reject the idea of a future without BWI - and are hopeful they can stave it off. They attest to a special sort of homegrown fortitude that will somehow carry them forward.

"BIW will always be here," says Ms. Cook. "That's what Mainers are - survivors."

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