St. Mary's town fears closing of naval base

April 17, 1991|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Correspondent

ST. INIGOES -- One look at Patrick and Betty Woodburn's surroundings and you know why they never want to leave this little community near the southernmost tip of St. Mary's County.

The back yard of their spacious rancher is Church Cove, a secluded Potomac River tributary. Their side yard is a 150-acre wheat field, a blanket of green after spring rains.

The Woodburns grew up here. Four of their five children have started school here. And their front door is less than two miles TC from where Mr. Woodburn works.

But there's the rub: Mr. Woodburn's workplace, the Naval Electronics Systems Engineering Activity (NESEA, rhymes with Chessie), may soon cease to exist.

Under a Defense Department cost-cutting plan announced Friday, NESEA would be phased out by 1995, one of 43 facilities to close nationwide. Its work -- developing radio communications, underseas surveillance, target identification systems and other high-tech devices -- would move to Portsmouth, Va. The Pentagon says 37 military and 1,018 civilian jobs would be lost.

A presidential commission is considering the recommended closings, with Pat Woodburn's American dream and St. Inigoes' prosperity in the balance.

"Your initial reaction is either shock or you've been slapped in the face," said Mr. Woodburn, 39, who runs NESEA's physical plant. "You get that yucky feeling in the pit of your stomach that somebody has found a way to rationalize away your future. We've just had a hundred success stories from the Persian Gulf, and wham!"

The "wham" is being felt throughout St. Inigoes, a sparsely settled community amid farms and piney woods along Route 5, nine miles north of where the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay converge and Southern Maryland ends.

"It's a one-horse town," said Joe Ridgell, a former justice of the peace. "It's going to hurt a lot of people."

The local consensus, said Ray Raley, owner of a supermarket in nearby Ridge, is that "if Roy Dyson was still in Congress, this never would have happened." Mr. Dyson, a St. Mary's County Democrat and former member of the House Armed Services Committee, was unseated by Representative Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-Md.-1st, last year.

Jerry den Hartog, owner of the St. Inigoe's General Store, said a base closing would cut deeply into his business. "I could put the place on the market, but who's buying at this stage of the game?" he asked.

Mail carrier Edward Gill, a postal service contract employee, said closing NESEA would wipe out almost half his daily delivery load.

"In other words, I'd have to find some other work," he said.

Philip Dorsey III, a Leonardtown lawyer, has put his plans for subdividing a 150-acre tract in St. Inigoes on hold.

However, Mr. Dorsey and others say that while St. Inigoes may be hurt by the Pentagon's plans, St. Mary's County as a whole might benefit. The plans call for adding 143 military and 1,813 civilian jobs at Patuxent River Naval Air Test Center in Lexington Park.

"There will be a transition period where there's a little blood in the streets," said Joe Daley, a real estate broker. "But the net effect here in St. Mary's County is a plus."

NESEA provides work for 45 uniformed military personnel, about 400 civil service engineers and technicians and some 1,700 employees of defense contractors, some at NESEA and others off-base in the Lexington Park area, said Capt. William E. Belden, commanding officer.

The 852-acre installation on the St. Mary's River -- choice waterfront property that the Navy plans to keep -- has a $330 million annual budget, including a payroll of more than $80 million. Another $10 million is spent for locally provided services, such as cleaning buildings, cutting the grass and supplying paper.

Sue Wilkinson, a county economic development officer, said it was not yet clear whether the highly skilled jobs at NESEA would be replaced by comparable positions at Patuxent River and whether contractors would stay in St. Mary's.

"Not all jobs are equal," she said. "It depends on whether they are housed inside or outside the [base] gates, whether they involve leased space, whether they are military, civilian or contractor jobs, and what types of jobs they are."

The Navy is the county's "lifeblood," said Robert E. Waxman, a Baltimore native who is NESEA's civilian executive director.

A sign on Mr. Waxman's wall says, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," and that clearly reflects his feelings about the plan to close NESEA.

Not everyone is upset, however, about the proposed closing.

Kevin Pulliam, who works for Bendix Field Engineering Corp., a major NESEA contractor, bought a house in nearby Hollywood only a year ago, but he said he'd move if necessary.

"Portsmouth would be closer to home for me," the North Carolina native said.

A few people would welcome NESEA's departure. Alexander Milburn, who runs a roofing business near the base's back gate, says he is tired of the after-work traffic whizzing by. And Bonnie Ridgell, a farmer who lives near the base, said that she and her husband rented land to grow soybeans and corn and that they welcomed anything that would slow the area's development.

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