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Parting Is Sorrow for Naval Station Fans : Bases: Businesses catering to station's 16,000 sailors and dependents are expecting worst after recommendation for closure.

July 04, 1991|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the departure of the Long Beach Naval Station becomes more likely, the city is beginning to feel like a sweetheart about to be left behind.

From shopkeepers to barbers and bartenders, the businesses that cater to the naval station's 16,000 sailors and their families are already feeling the pain of parting.

"I'm trying to make myself not believe it," sighed Josh Jynes, the manager of a corner food and liquor store a few blocks from a Navy housing complex on the scruffy west side of Long Beach. More than a third of his business comes from Navy families and civilians who work at the station.

"What do they expect the people to do around here?" Jynes wondered. "A lot of my customers work (at the station)."

Although the final decision on the station's fate has not been made, city leaders see little chance that the Terminal Island station and local naval hospital will remain open now that a federal commission has recommended their closure as part of a national round of military base closings.

Mayor Ernie Kell and others are nonetheless counting their blessings that the Long Beach Naval Shipyard--and its 4,100 civilian jobs--have been spared. "That was the biggest thing we were worried about," Kell said. "I think we have to realize that world tension has decreased . . . and it was inevitable they were going to cut back. (The station) was the area I preferred."

Officials also say the city is in better shape to survive the sailors' departure than it was in 1974, when the Navy last steamed out of town during another round of cutbacks.

"In 1973, the economy of this town was supported by the Navy to a much greater degree," observed Assistant City Manager John F. Shirey. It was the economic shock of that shutdown that forced the city to diversify its job base, adding hotels, office high-rises and a convention center to its downtown.

But the Navy sailed back in 1979 and once again worked its way into the fabric of the local economy. The combined military and civilian payroll of the naval station and the hospital is more than $350 million a year. Its loss will further wound a city already hurt by the recession, a glut in the office market and layoffs in the aerospace industry.

"It shouldn't close. Too many people out of jobs. They should close bases overseas," declared Lisa Marie Garcia as she snipped and shaved the already short hair of a steady procession of sailors in the station's barbershop.

Over at the naval hospital in northeastern Long Beach, Cheryl Kleinsmith wasn't happy either.

"It will take a lot of business away. There will be a lot of unemployment. I started two years ago, and I like it here. I was hoping to retire here," grumbled Kleinsmith, a clerical worker and one of the approximately 1,300 civilians who work at the station and hospital.

The hospital's closing will also make it harder for tens of thousands of retirees and other military personnel remaining in the Los Angeles area to get the free medical care the military offers.

"It's a low blow. You count on things for a long time and all of a sudden they pull the rug out from under you," complained Frances Heppe, a retired Navy officer and former cancer patient who goes to the Long Beach hospital for regular checkups.

Not all will consider the hospital's closing a great loss. Like many other military hospitals around the country, the Long Beach facility has been under fire from both doctors and patients in recent years because of shortages of staff and supplies.

Two years ago, a group of doctors at the hospital found the care so inadequate that they for a time stopped admitting seriously ill patients.

"I haven't been able to use it for the last 10 years," said Roger Miller, a retired Navy captain. "They haven't had the doctors I needed . . . All I've been able to get out of them is pills. I can't even get an annual exam."

In recommending the closings Sunday, members of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission indicated they hoped that another use could be found for the 24-year-old hospital, rather than letting it sit idle or demolishing it.

Local officials would have no trouble finding things to do with the commercially valuable hospital tract or the 240 waterfront acres of the station if they could get their hands on them. But the government has to find that the land is no longer needed for federal purposes before it will give it up. And city executives say that even if the station is officially shut, the Navy has told them it will keep using many of the facilities--for sailors whose ships are in repair at the nearby shipyard and for other military personnel in the region.

"There's not some large tract of land that is going to be made available," Shirey noted.

Furthermore, local leaders worry that after the ships leave, the station will be put under the administration of the shipyard, pushing up the shipyard's operating costs and making it an easier target for Pentagon budget cutters.

"That's a very real fear on our part," Shirey said. "That cost will simply get loaded into the cost of running the shipyard. And you can bet your boots that in a couple of years the commission will be looking at all the bases and shipyards again. And guess what? There will be all those figures that all those costs have increased."

Around the station, sailors seemed largely indifferent to the probable shutdown of their homeport. It will just mean another transfer in a life of transfers--maybe to some place a little more inviting than Terminal Island, home to a federal prison and a trash incinerator as well as the station and shipyard.

"I could care less," Jake Maenpa , a petty officer from Denver, said with a slight grin. "I think this whole area is over-industralized. There is no vegetation. It's ugly. It's the ugliest place I've ever been in."

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