Monday, February 28, 2005

LEXINGTON PARK, Md. — In his narrow shop across from a gate to the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, shoehorned between offices of big military contracting companies, Charles Morgan cuts hair behind a front window with a spinning barber pole and a “God Bless our Troops” sign.

Customers pay $10 for any style, including the crisp buzz cut Mr. Morgan sculpted recently atop Sam Fulp’s head with swift strokes of his electric shaver. Mr. Fulp works at the Navy base, the source of about 80 percent of the region’s economy and many of Mr. Morgan’s customers.

“If it weren’t for that base, a lot of people would be out of work,” Mr. Morgan said as he trimmed away some stray hairs.

That is why St. Mary’s County, home to the base, and other Maryland communities with military installations anxiously await the latest round of base closings this year. A cut in programs or closure could mean the loss of thousands of jobs, both on a base and in businesses and services that depend on the facility.

Under a process called Base Realignment and Closure, known as BRAC, the Pentagon will review whether to shut down or trim the size of its 425 bases to save money. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said the military has more bases than it needs, and he hopes to cut up to $7 billion annually.

Maryland is home to 12 major military installations and several smaller facilities. No large troop units are stationed in the state, and most bases are involved in research, such as biodefense at Fort Detrick in Frederick County, medical care at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda and weapons testing at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County.

Although it is unlikely that a base such as Patuxent River, which tests Navy and Marine Corps aircraft, will be shuttered, some programs could be shifted to other states. Local officials worry that smaller stations, such as the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Indian Head, could be closed.

“There’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty,” said Thomas McKay, president of the St. Mary’s Board of County Commissioners.

Next month, President Bush will appoint a commission to oversee the closure process. By May, Mr. Rumsfeld will send to the commission his list of bases that could be closed or reduced in size. The commission will review the list and forward a report to the president. In the fall, Mr. Bush will make a decision on the commission’s recommendations.

During the last round of base closings 10 years ago, Maryland lost Fort Ritchie in Washington County, which employed about 2,000 people. A Navy center at White Oak in Montgomery County was closed, along with several smaller facilities across the state.

The Navy base in St. Mary’s County was a big winner, absorbing Naval Air Warfare Center programs from bases in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and the Naval Air Systems Command from Virginia.

Those additions helped swell the base’s size to 19,500 workers and make Lexington Park one of the state’s fastest-growing regions. Mr. McKay estimates the base generates about $3 billion of annual revenue in the county in each year, including the contractors and businesses that depend on it.

This time, Patuxent River faces competition from other states. The Navy could move some functions, such as a test pilot school, to the China Lake Navy base in California. That effort could be helped by pressure from California’s large congressional delegation.

“We’re on the eve of a pretty big battle,” said U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, who said she plans to contact the Pentagon and work with lawmakers from California to keep them from poaching Maryland bases. “We cannot underestimate the threat of China Lake.”

To stave off cuts, many communities have undertaken “BRAC-proofing” projects, spiffing up roads, schools and buildings. St. Mary’s County is in the process of demolishing a decaying apartment complex in the flight path of planes using the base’s runway. The road outside the base has been widened and topped with a fresh coat of asphalt.

In Aberdeen, home to the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground, Mayor Douglas Wilson touts partnerships between local developers and the military to build facilities on the post as cost-cutting measures already in place. With 72,000 acres, much of it unused, the proving ground has room for expansion, he said.

“We don’t feel there is going to be any large realignment at APG,” Mr. Wilson said. “We think we are pretty solid.”

Charles County leaders are less optimistic. Located on the Potomac River, the Naval Surface Warfare Center, with 3,500 jobs, is the top employer in the county and the anchor of the small town of Indian Head.

Because it is small compared with other military installations, County Commissioners President Wayne Cooper worries it could be merged into Navy weapons research centers in other states.

“Any small base in a community like this is vulnerable,” he said.

At the Patuxent Naval Air Museum, with a collection that includes models of aircraft carriers, ejector seats and old fighter planes parked out back, director Toby Van Esselstyn said few people think the Patuxent River base will be seriously affected.

The addition of two new test programs for the Joint Strike Fighter and new presidential helicopter is a sign the military remains committed to the base, he said. But the extra scrutiny from the Pentagon does make people uneasy.

“We always worry about it,” he said of the base closure process. “You don’t like the idea of something in your back yard closing up.”

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