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The Region

Veterans Seek Military Store's Reopening

Benefits: The commissary at the closed El Toro Marine base sold groceries and goods at a discount.

July 06, 2001|THUY-DOAN LE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Peering through the glass pane into the empty El Toro commissary, 72-year-old war veteran George Simon shakes his head.

It's deserted inside the Marine store, a dusky building filled with empty shelves and vacant checkout aisles. Once, thousands of soldiers and veterans bought their groceries and supplies here. It was a gathering spot too, a place where old soldiers swapped memories.

A Vietnam and Korean war veteran who put in 20 years with the military, Simon is now fighting to bring life back to the commissary.

He's not alone. Hundreds of veterans have lobbied government agents and politicians to clear the path so the old Marine base discount store can be reopened. Their battle has dragged on for months.

The commissary closed in September, but the effort to keep it open began when the Marines were first put on notice in the late 1990s that they'd be shipped. The base is nearly idle now; only the horse stables, a golf course, an RV storage lot and a swimming pool remain open.

There is new hope, however, that the commissary may reopen. A federal study that is examining the commissary issue will be completed later this month and county supervisors officially have thrown their support behind local veterans by urging the Department of Defense to reopen the base market.

There is a hitch, however. County supervisors are demanding that the federal government pay "fair market value" for the building.

"This act is nothing short of a slap in the face of our military and is sure to outrage many," said Ken Lee, spokesman for Keep the El Toro Commissary Committee, the group of vets fighting for the commissary.

The group has been at it since 1999, trying to build support to save the commissary, the military equivalent of a civilian supermarket. They want to convert the empty building to a so-called BX-Mart, a combination grocery and retail outlet. There are only four such military stores that replaced commissaries at closed bases in the nation, none of them on the West Coast.

Al Harvard, chairman for the group and a retired U.S. Army major and Vietnam veteran, said there are more than 20,000 active or retired soldiers who would benefit if the commissary were to reopen at El Toro. He said that when the store was open, about 12,000 families used it monthly.

"There are retirees and veterans who desperately need the 30% savings the commissary provides," Harvard said.

The letter of support from supervisors comes as the Department of Defense is finishing a study to determine what it would take to reopen the commissary's doors as well as its economic feasibility. The study, requested by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), is due July 23.

Cox said he hopes to talk with military and county officials to explore a compromise on the expenses of opening and operating a reopened commissary.

"Our objective is simply to cut through the red tape and get the commissary up," Cox said.

If the study recommends reopening the store, the Army Air Force Exchange Services would be asked to manage the BX-Mart.

Local veterans who support opening the base market have asked county supervisors to drop their demand that the military pay to use the old building.

"Considering the fact the Navy has essentially gifted the El Toro commissary and surrounding land to the county free of charge, the county should not be trying to leverage the military to make a profit by requiring the military to pay 'fair market value' for property the military already owns," said Lee.

The county said that though they support reopening the commissary, they cannot afford to foot any bills.

The rent--an unknown figure for the moment--would be used to pay utility bills, law enforcement and security, fire protection and related costs, said Gary Simon, executive director of the El Toro Local Redevelopment Agency.

"The county is not looking for a profit," Simon said. "The county is only interested that all fixed costs are covered by somebody other than the county because it cannot subsidize the reopening of the commissary."

Commissaries are funded by Congress and paid through the Department of Defense budget. The reduced-priced groceries are considered a benefit of military service.

Lee argues that the military has an operating budget to support a BX-Mart until the store generates sufficient revenue to support itself, so the county would not be expected to pay or subsidize anything.

Additionally, Lee said he fears that a bad message is being sent to those who might be interested in joining the military.

"They sign up for the military and do their work, but when they retire, they have no benefits," Lee said. "This benefit is to offset the low pay the military receives."

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