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Next Step : Hopeful Filipinos Foresee a Boom as U.S. Exits Subic Bay : The base itself is worth $1.35 billion. Whether the country can capitalize on it remains an open question.

August 18, 1992|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SUBIC BAY NAVAL STATION, Philippines — The three huge floating dry docks have floated away, towed off to Guam, Hawaii and Japan. The recruiting station that brought 35,000 Filipinos into the U.S. Navy is shut. The ship repair facility, one of the Navy's largest, is closing this month.

The once-busy Officers' Club and elegant Chart House restaurant are locked and dark. The books are gone from the library, horses sold from the El Kabayo Stables, closing sales under way at the PX. Even the bowling lanes were ripped out and shipped away. And now the U.S. Navy is taking the toilet seats. Not all the toilet seats, mind you, just those in the ladies' room in the Plaque Bar. But more about them in a moment. The U.S. military retreat from the Philippines after nearly a century of proud service is fast turning one of America's largest overseas bases into a ghost town of deserted streets, empty buildings and fading memories. Come December, when the U.S. flag is lowered one last time and the complex is formally handed to the Philippine government, a historic era will be over.

Ceded to the United States after the Spanish-American War in 1898, Subic saw action in nearly every subsequent war, including Operation Desert Storm. Officials say 70% of all ammunition, food, mail and other supplies sent to the Navy and Marines in the Persian Gulf came through Subic Bay, the primary logistic, maintenance and training support base for the 7th Fleet.

"This is really the only place in the world that just had everything," Rear Adm. Thomas A. Mercer, commander of U.S. forces at Subic and in the Philippines, said in a small, windowless office he moved into in mid-July after closing the Navy's plush, pier-side headquarters. "We really couldn't have a more strategic base. It's sad to see it go."

But the shutting of the giant base, the result of an emotional vote over issues of national sovereignty by the Philippine Senate last September, also offers a unique chance for at least part of the Philippines to finally break free from crippling poverty. Whether the country can capitalize on the opportunity--or whether it will be squandered like so many others, a victim of lethargy and corruption--is an open question.

When it goes, the Navy will hand over buildings and infrastructure worth $1.35 billion, from a newly refurbished 25-megawatt power plant to 1,876 air-conditioned housing units. Since Subic also was a rest and recreation base, other facilities include a palm-fringed resort island, an 18-hole golf course, six swimming pools, three gyms, assorted shooting ranges, tennis courts, baseball diamonds, even a Go Kart track and a paint-ball war game course.

Further, Subic has one of Asia's finest deep-water ports, a highly skilled labor force, a jumbo jet airport with a 2.4-million-gallon fuel storage farm, the country's best telephone and communications system and one of Luzon's last remaining stands of virgin rain forest, complete with chattering monkeys, wild boar and aboriginal tribes.

The primeval 10,000-acre tract, blanketing hills that rise dramatically around the base, is Subic's watershed. Guarded day and night by armed patrols, the forest was used to train thousands of pilots and Marines in jungle warfare and survival. Whether it will now survive, or be logged bare like most of the country's other hardwood forests, will be a key test for the new owners.

"This (town) is going to be the first winner in the Philippines," promised Richard Gordon, the ever-optimistic mayor of Olongapo, the adjacent city of 320,000 known to generations of American sailors and Marines as one of the raunchiest liberty ports in Asia for its hundreds of bars and 6,000 registered "entertainers."

Gordon's goal now is to turn Subic and nearby towns into a world-class tourist mecca, a Hong Kong-style, duty-free shopping haven and a bustling light industrial zone. He said 70 local and foreign companies are interested in a variety of projects: turning dorm-like bachelor officer quarters into luxury hotels; luring golf tournaments and sporting events; opening factories, offices, schools and much, much more.

"We have better facilities than any city in the Philippines," Gordon said cheerfully. "There's no gloom and doom scenario. There's only boom and bloom."

So far, however, it's just dreams. That includes Gordon's widely reported announcement in July that Universal Studios and the Walt Disney Co. were coming to set up shop. Both companies quickly denied the reports, and Gordon now admits he was "just thinking aloud. Hoping really."

"We are not yet in full gear," explained Rosalinda Ligsay, 47, a former base worker who now works for Gordon in the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, one of three government bodies ostensibly in charge of Subic's future. "We have no promotions. We have no marketing in place."

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