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.

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.

Long process ahead

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.

The Defense Department has tried to be clear about the purpose behind this year's closures: The national economy and even cost savings are secondary. This is about crafting the best possible network of bases to support the military as it changes from a cumbersome cold war behemoth to a more flexible strike force.

"How can we improve the utilization of these assets to support the joint warfighter?" asks Philip Grone, the Pentagon undersecretary who oversees installations.

This focus appears to be helping US bases in some respects. The Pentagon is expected to comprehensively restructure its bases overseas, which could bring thousands of troops home and ease domestic base cuts to less than half the 24 percent of surplus capacity long projected.

But that is little consolation to the people of Kittery. According to the Seacoast Shipyard Association, the civilian payroll exceeds $318 million, and purchases throughout New England account for more than $30 million a year.

Gil Caouette, a quality assurance inspector at the Navy Yard for more than 30 years, says he is expecting to be unemployed when he returns from a fly fishing trip next week. But, with his handy-man skills and being close to retirement, he has options. "It is the young kids," he says, who he most empathizes with.

Closure will surely impact local businesses like the Navy Yard Bar & Billiards that rely on the bulk of out-of-towners who pass through the shipyard year-round.

Bouncing back

Kittery is not the only place on edge in the face of the BRAC process. Texas and South Carolina, for example, have bought open space around military bases to keep away urban sprawl. Alabama spent $100 million of its own money to refurbish aging military facilities. And last year, Florida increased benefits for members of the armed forces.

But it's too late to plan such perks now. The Pentagon has said that any proposed changes will not be considered. Besides, to some observers, that's the wrong way to go about the next few months. "A lot of communities are calling us and asking how to fight it," says Hilarie Portell, spokeswoman for the Lowry Development Authority in Colorado. "We say you need to plan for the future."

When the Pentagon shut down Lowry Air Force Base a decade ago, the move had all the earmarks of a local disaster. The installation employed some 7,500 civilians and contributed $300 million to the economy annually. But a redevelopment plan was in place before the base closed, and Thursday, the former airfield is home to 3,000 homes, 100 businesses, and 10 schools. One estimate suggests the site now generates $4 billion a year.

By contrast, at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in California, local leaders were insistent on building a new international airport, even though the community was not behind it. The dispute lasted more than 10 years and cost more than $100 million.

To be sure, base closings can be traumatic for communities, particularly small ones. But statistics show that 85 percent of the jobs lost in the previous four rounds have been recovered, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Says Mr. Grone: "Communities that have responded with foresight by coming together and by cooperative planning in most cases have done very well over the long term in trying the get the community back on its feet."

Estes says he worries that Kittery has not done enough Plan B thinking, but he says he also understands how hard it is to imagine life without the shipyard - the one thing that has bound the community together over two centuries.

Still he says: "As much as you have to fight, you also have to plan ahead."

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