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America From Abroad : What Happens When GI Joe Goes Home? : Zweibruecken's giant U.S. air base is on a hit list. There goes the city's main source of income.

May 22, 1990|WILLIAM TUOHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ZWEIBRUECKEN, West Germany — "This is going to hit the town hard," Mayor Werner von Blon said. "It's a situation we didn't expect."

Zweibruecken, a city of 35,000 people in the western Rhineland, is facing the grim fact that its primary source of income, a giant U.S. air base, will be shut down as part of a post-Cold War American retrenchment in Europe.

Some West Germans complain about low-flying warplanes and destructive military maneuvers, but Zweibruecken, named for two medieval bridges over the Schwarzbach, has welcomed American soldiers and Air Force personnel.

The air base fuels the local economy: 340 civilians work at the base, and many more sell goods and services to it. The people of Zweibruecken rent out about 1,440 houses and apartments to servicemen and women who choose to live off the base.

Mayor Von Blon figures that the base contributes $84 million a year to the city's economy. When the Americans leave, unemployment is expected to rise sharply, perhaps to 20%.

Von Blon, a stocky man with wavy gray hair, said he was upset by the abrupt notice that the base is to close by the end of 1993.

"We didn't think Zweibruecken would be on the list; we don't have combat forces," he said recently over coffee in his office. "I don't blame the local air base people. . . . They didn't know themselves what was going to happen. It was decided in Washington."

The decision was announced Jan. 26, and the people of Zweibruecken are still adjusting. They had assumed that the base would be among the last in West Germany to close, and--because the economic future seemed assured--they received no federal aid or advice.

This rolling, wooded region has so many air bases it's called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's aircraft carrier. Zweibruecken has the 26th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, with RF-4C Phantoms, and the 10th Airlift Squadron, with C-23A Sherpas.

There are Army supply depots, too, and the center of all this military activity is Kaiserslautern--"K-town," the GIs call it--which has the largest concentration of Americans living outside the United States, more than 70,000. Next to government, the U.S. military is the area's No. 1 employer.

Air Force Sgt. Rick Schick told a visitor he was showing around the base at Zweibruecken: "We've got about 3,600 servicemen and another 3,600 dependents. I was really looking forward to another tour in Germany, but now we will all be relocated."

Nevertheless, cranes moved back and forth nearby where new barracks were going up. Canceling the contract would cost more than completing the buildings.

Sgt. Schick, 38, of Freeport, Pa., said the future of the base was not clear: NATO might use it as a reserve field, or the West Germans might find use for it.

At the Rosengarten, a restaurant patronized by American service personnel, bartender Albert Sieg said: "We've got a cozy atmosphere. Dancing on the weekends. . . . The Americans come in in uniform at lunchtime and in civilian clothes at night. I guess the closure was inevitable. But when the Americans go, it will be a big loss to the town and to this place."

Mayor Von Blon said that officials in Bonn will decide whether to hold on to the property or turn it over to the local people. City officials, who expect to inherit a 500-bed hospital that the Air Force built in the city but has never used, have suggested that Zweibruecken could become headquarters of the European Community.

"We have been host to the American military for the last 45 years," Mayor Von Blon mused. "While the Cold War was going on, no one ever thought of them leaving. Now, there's no question but that they will have to go.

"We all have mixed emotions about this. I'm happy the Cold War is over and there is less need for guns and bombers. But I'm not happy the Americans are leaving."

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