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Harbor Lobbies Navy for Land Use

Officials say the military and Port of Hueneme would profit from establishing commercial operations on part of the Seabee base.

August 21, 2004|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Hoping to use more Navy-owned land to expand operations at the Port of Hueneme, port officials have taken their case directly to Washington.

Without fanfare, officials visited the nation's capital several times this year to try to persuade top Navy officials that expanded joint use of dockside facilities at Navy Base Ventura County could be a mutually lucrative business arrangement.

Port officials argued that establishing commercial operations on 670 of the 1,600 acres the Seabees oversee at the base could reduce Defense Department expenses, bring millions of dollars in new revenue and save Navy and civilian jobs while significantly boosting all local port-related employment by 2030.

"We think it would be a plus for the community, for the Navy and a plus for the harbor district," said William J. Buenger, executive director of the Oxnard Harbor District, which operates the port.

In a pair of color brochures, officials outline plans for taking back land the federal government seized from the port in 1942. Under the proposal, the harbor district and its private-sector tenants would pay to modernize the World War II-era facilities, replacing aging buildings and installing rail lines and new cargo-moving equipment.

The port estimates the expansion would increase local tax revenue from $34 million to $137 million, add more than 11,000 jobs, push payrolls to $551 million and take the port's annual economic output from $535 million to nearly $2.2 billion by 2030.

"It's really important how people perceive our plan," said Harbor Commissioner Jess Herrera. "It has to be considered a good business proposition."

The Port of Hueneme is the nation's top citrus export site and the West Coast leader in banana imports. It has a growing business in auto imports for such customers as BMW, Hyundai, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mitsubishi, Rolls Royce, Saab and Volvo.

The 110-acre, two-wharf port is surrounded by the ocean, the city of Port Hueneme and the U.S. Naval Construction Battalion Center, the formal name of the Seabee facility.

Rep. Lois Capps, whose 23rd District now includes the port, held a luncheon last year to introduce the only deep-water port between Los Angeles and San Francisco to other members of Congress. Several months later, port officials returned to the Capitol to pitch their idea for greater use of Navy facilities.

"I support the commercial and military partnership at Port Hueneme," Capps said. "It is important to the Navy that our national security needs be met while economic opportunities at the Port of Hueneme are increased."

Back home, the harbor district's proposal has not been universally welcomed. With dozens of the nation's military installations facing possible downsizing or closing in the next round of base closure talks in 2005, some see the port's timing as inopportune.

"There are people who feel the argument they're making could be interpreted as a negative in terms of keeping the base open," said Port Hueneme City Councilman Jon Sharkey. "Saying the base is not being used to its full capacity is the sort of thing a base closure committee would look at and think maybe they should shut it."

Supervisor Judy Mikels, who co-chairs a countywide group that supports keeping the county's military installations open, said the harbor department's strategy of going to Navy leaders in Washington without first consulting local base commanders was ill-advised.

Buenger insists the last thing his agency wants is for the Navy base to be closed or lose any of its nearly 17,000 jobs. Instead, he says, having an expanded joint-use agreement for the Navy's seven wharves in place by early next year would make closure of the base less likely.

"Maybe if there was any thought of putting this base on the list [of possible closures], this would keep it off," Buenger said. "It's one thing to raise the flag and say 'We want to save the base,' but we have a proactive plan to achieve it."

After eight years of negotiation, the Navy signed a formal 15-year agreement in December 2002 to allow the port to jointly use the Naval Construction Battalion Center's Wharf 3, giving the harbor district a much-needed sixth berth and the base nearly 40% of the added business in new revenue.

Military missions have top priority and the port must vacate the wharf and 25 adjacent acres within 72 hours when notified. Post-9/11 security concerns delayed commercial use of the wharf until last November, but since then the pact has generated more than $100,000 worth of capital improvements for the Navy.

"It's been working great," said Master Chief Petty Officer Mike Miller, port operations officer at the base. "It brings in more money to the local economy, and I'm able to get a percentage of that for upkeep and improvements in the port."

Separately, the Navy has direct leases on about 120 acres of the Seabee site with Mazda Motors Corp. and a second company that processes and distributes foreign autos.

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