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Philadelphia Left Adrift as Navy Abandons Port : Economy: Defense cutbacks hit the military base and shipyard that has been an integral part of the city. Closure will mean the loss of 9,000 jobs.

November 05, 1995|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHILADELPHIA — It is not a ghost town--yet.

The McDonald's restaurant is still open. The red-brick row houses where sailors live with their families have not completely emptied. And the Colonial-style buildings that house naval offices show signs of life.

But all that is temporary. The Philadelphia Naval Base and Shipyard, the nation's oldest naval base and an integral part of the city's history, is shutting down.

The closure, the result of defense industry downsizing, means the loss of 9,000 jobs and the demise of the Philadelphia area's largest manufacturing plant. It is also another in a long series of blows to the area's reeling economy.

Philadelphia has lost 250,000 factory jobs in the past 25 years, a period during which the city watched a quarter of its population--an estimated 482,000 people--move away. And a recent poll conducted by the Philadelphia Inquirer found that 43% of the remaining residents would like to move out, so concerned are they about crime, jobs, public schools and the physical deterioration of their neighborhoods.

The shipyard will be the latest in a list of local institutions to have shut down or moved away recently. Breyers Ice Cream, a hometown company, closed its Philadelphia plant in August. Whitman's Chocolates and Scott Paper Co. have gone elsewhere. And the venerable John Wanamaker's department store chain has changed its name to Hecht's. "So many of our landmarks in Philadelphia are crumbling and disappearing," one former shipyard worker wrote to the Inquirer last month. "We must try to keep something that is synonymous with our city."

"What's next?" asked another letter writer. "TastyKake [regionally popular pastries] and the Liberty Bell?"

For almost three years after closure of the shipyard was announced in 1991, city officials mounted a campaign to keep the base and yard open. Some blame this futile effort for the poor preparations that were made for the facility's closure.

Now officials speak of the yard's demise as an opportunity not only to convert the 1,168-acre property to commercial use, but also to revitalize the nation's stagnant shipbuilding industry. Critics, however say that those efforts have also been damaged by official mishandling.

Meyer Werft, one of the world's largest shipbuilders, had proposed converting part of the yard to a $497-million plant to build multi-deck cruise ships and tankers. But the German company withdrew its plan last month after Gov. Thomas J. Ridge publicly ridiculed Meyer Werft's request for a $95-million state loan after other government bodies had already signed on.

At a recent ceremony marking the closure, Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell sounded pained when he spoke of the shipyard, which he said has been as vital a part of city life as the Mummers, cheese-steaks, hoagies and soft pretzels.

The facility, which employed 47,000 people at its peak during World War II, was "a bristling engine of activity, one of the key cogs that drove the economic life of the City of Philadelphia," he said. "You couldn't think of Philadelphia without thinking of the Philadelphia Naval Yard. And it will exist no more."

The city isn't suffering alone. Defense industry downsizing cost 145,000 U.S. workers their jobs last year, according to a study by the National Commission for Economic Conversion and Disarmament. About 43,000 defense-related jobs are expected to be cut this year and next due to base closings and consolidations.

Philadelphia is unique, however, because of its long association with the Navy.

In this city redolent of history, shipbuilding has been a part of the economy since the 18th Century, when privately owned shipyards flourished. Both the Navy and Marine Corps were founded in Philadelphia in 1775, while the city served as capital of the 13 American Colonies. The Navy opened its first yard here in 1801, and it has been in its current location for more than 120 years.

"Everyone who grew up in Philadelphia, as I did, knew someone who worked at the yard," said Deputy Assistant Navy Secretary William J. Cassidy, who also spoke at the closing ceremonies.

The plan to lure Meyer Werft to the shipyard would have been a tremendous boon to the area--not only because of the economic impact of the plant, which would have employed 2,000 workers, but also because it would have kept Philadelphia's proud shipbuilding tradition alive, said Terry Gillen, vice president of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Commission.

"Take a guy who was a ship pipe-fitter for the Navy and put him to work for a private company in a similar job for similar pay--that would be defense conversion at its best," she said.

Nearly all commercial shipbuilding has been done abroad in the past three decades, Gillen said, adding that "to try to revitalize the industry in the United States now is a huge challenge."

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