Closing 'not all despair,' Ft. Ritchie neighbors told

March 13, 1995|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Can there be life in an isolated rural community after the closing of its principal source of money and jobs?

It is a question those who live around the Army signal base at Fort Ritchie, in Western Maryland, are busy asking, and those around the Army's intelligence station at Vint Hill Farms, Va., are busy answering.

Fort Ritchie, with 638 acres and 2,344 employees, is on this year's Pentagon list of military bases proposed for closure. Vint Hill Farms Station, with 700 acres and 2,000 employees, was put on the list two years ago and is being phased out.

The Virginia camp offers a glimpse into what the future might hold for Fort Ritchie if the Maryland installation stays on the Pentagon's hit list. And the chances are that it will. Over the past three rounds of base closures -- in 1988, 1991 and 1993 -- fewer than one in five targeted camps escaped closure. Vint Hill Farms tried to get taken off the 1993 list and failed.

"We have been through it," said Owen W. Bludau, executive director of the Vint Hill economic adjustment task force. "We know the struggles [the Fort Ritchie community] is going to go through. We can give them some lessons learned."

Here, the people of Vint Hill Farms say, are a few:

* Lesson 1 -- Don't panic. Help is at hand, and there is time to find it. Two years after being put on the list, Vint Hill is still developing its re-use plan, putting together a financial package and growing optimistic about an economic rebirth.

"It is not all despair," said Brian O'Connell, executive director of the National Association of Installation Developers, an organization of communities and companies that have lived through base closures.

"Yes, there will be hard work," he said. "Yes, there will be change. But there is enough evidence to show if you stay at it, there will be recovery, and you can do more to catch your destiny than just be in a passive mode and say, 'That's the end of it,' and people move out and sell their houses."

* Lesson 2 -- Expect to experience all sorts of emotions before acceptance finally sinks in.

"I have seen people liken it to the seven stages of grief, to a death in the family," Mr. O'Connell said.

At Vint Hill Farms, Janet Nixdoff, who runs the workers' transition team, said: "Many of the employees are in resistance -- that is, they are angry, frustrated, uncertain. They are not sure what they want to do.

"I am right in the eye of the storm, and it's very stressful. We get employees coming in and they have had a fight with their boss, or a fight with their wives."

The first 18 civilians to lose their jobs at Vint Hill Farms are now on notice to empty their desks by June 7. Helped by a Pentagon-backed outreach and retraining program, more than half already have new jobs. This is in line with national figures, which show that 59 percent of the work force finds new jobs within a year of base closure.

The 1,500 civilian jobs at Vint Hill Farms represent 15 percent of the local employment base and contribute $15 million in salaries to Fauquier County. Most have the option of transferring to the headquarters of the Army's communications and electronics command at Fort Monmouth, N.J., but few have decided whether to leave Virginia.

A survey of the impact of base closures on 97 communities over the past three decades shows that while 88,000 federal jobs were lost, 171,177 jobs -- nearly twice as many -- were created. The survey was conducted by the Pentagon's Office of Economic Adjustment, which also helps localities recover from the effects of base closures.

The real challenge

"It is a crude measure of recovery," said Paul Dempsey, head of the adjustment office. "The challenge is how much time lapses between the defense-supported local economy and its replacement by a civilian-supported economy."

* Lesson 3 -- Try to save the installation, but prepare for the day when it lowers the flag for the last time. The gates at Vint Hill Farms Station will close on all of the base employees in September 1997.

Donald Baxter, 61, who has run the Vint Hill base barber shop for 37 years and once employed three other barbers there but now has work only for himself, is opening a new hair cuttery in Gainesville, Va.

"Everyone laid back and said it's not going to happen to us -- this is something that happens to someone else," said a wistful Mr. Baxter. "It's home after so many years."

Larry Ross Mayhugh, the third generation since 1912 to run Mayhugh's Store, the nearest convenience outlet to the base, sees redevelopment as boosting the family business.

"I'd love to see that," he said. "I remember when I was growing up . . . it seemed every other person you saw would be in the military. But [recently] this community has not, to my knowledge, been supported by the military.

"In the last 10 years, people have been moving out this way, which they call 'the country,' to build a house, enjoy some privacy and beauty." Half of Fauquier County's workers commute to their jobs, mainly in Washington.

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