LONG BEACH — With its ships and sailors tucked away on Terminal Island, the Navy seems almost invisible in this seaside city. But let the Pentagon threaten to send the battleships away, and it is clear that this community still considers itself very much a Navy town.
"We're still trying to recover from the shock of it all," said Mayor Ernie Kell, commenting on last week's surprise announcement that the Pentagon wants to close the Long Beach Naval Station and Naval Hospital as part of its reduction of the nation's military forces.
Caught off guard by the Pentagon recommendation, local officials are quickly marshaling forces to undo it. Kell has formed a task force of naval and business representatives to lobby for the station, and city officials are arming themselves with information to argue against the closure.
"I think we're the only city on that list that's had its base closed twice in 20 years," remarked City Manager James C. Hankla. "I do think it may be time for somebody else to have their base closed once."
While the Defense Department spared the Naval Shipyard on Terminal Island from the cutting block, it said the station's 38 ships, 16,000 sailors and 1,000 civilian jobs were no longer needed in Long Beach. Similar pronouncements were made in 1974, when the Navy shut the station and pulled out 63 ships and 20,000 sailors, but started bringing them back five years later.
The 1974 closure hit the city hard. Numerous small businesses dependent on the sailors closed shop. "We had to reconstruct our entire downtown," Hankla said. "We had lots of empty storefronts. We've been coming back ever since."
Hankla predicted the shutdown would deal a serious blow to the local economy, which also has been staggered by layoffs at McDonnell Douglas' local aircraft plant, the city's largest employer. "It's a double whammy," he said.
In bemoaning the Navy's possible pullout, city officials point to the Navy's annual military and civilian payroll, which totals $379 million in Long Beach, and $18 million the station spends every year on contracts and services in the area.
"It's like losing a major industry," observed Councilman Tom Clark, who moved to Long Beach as a child when his father's Navy ship was transferred here.
Still, Judith Roberts, an economics professor at Cal State Long Beach, said the city's economy may not suffer as much as city officials think. She noted that the military personnel would be transferred elsewhere, which would not increase local unemployment. Moreover, she said Department of Defense studies have found that military personnel tend to spend less than half their pay off base. Much of their money goes to stores, restaurants and entertainment on base, bypassing local businessmen.
The city's economy is also more diverse than it was in the early 1970s, observed Susan Shick, the city's community development director. "I think any time you close an operation that employs a number of people, civilian and military, you're going to have a severe impact. But I think this time the city is in a much better position to deal with it (than in 1974)."
If Long Beach could get its hands on the 240 acres of waterfront property occupied by the Naval Station, the city's tears would soon turn to smiles. But that remains a big if.
A Navy spokesman in Washington said the fate of the station property is unknown at this point. Local officials said that if the Navy leaves, they will lobby furiously to get back the land--which the city sold to the Navy in 1940 for $1. But many were pessimistic about their chances.
"They'll hold on to it in case there's a national emergency," Mayor Kell predicted last week.
The city attorney's office even researched the city's agreement with the Navy, looking for a clause that would force return of the property if it went unused for a prolonged period. No such clause was found.
The Naval Station and the 145-bed hospital--located miles away from Terminal Island in northeastern Long Beach on land that the city also gave the Navy for $1--were among 11 California sites on a list of 31 major bases recommended for closure around the country. The proposed cuts are part of the Defense Department's efforts to trim the military and pare the Navy from 531 to 450 active ships and from 573,000 to 510,000 sailors by 1995.
Defense budget cutters cited four main reasons for wanting to padlock Long Beach: the station needs significant upgrading, is located in an area with a high cost of living, duplicates facilities at the San Diego naval base, and is not large enough to absorb large numbers of ships from other bases in a Navy consolidation.
"The base is in better shape than they were led to believe," countered Kell. He said city advocates will remind Congress and the independent committee that will review the closure list that the Navy has spent $100 million on new facilities in Long Beach during the past five years.