Naval center engineers shift gears Military downsizing moves about 300 out of Annapolis

Many staffers left in limbo

Goodbye is painful for some relocating to Montgomery facility

August 19, 1996|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

Government experts are creating bursts of light as intense as lightning and as hot as the sun. Unfortunately, they don't quite know their own address.

This has been a disorienting summer for nearly 300 engineers, who are moving from the Naval Surface Warfare Center near Annapolis to the center's headquarters at Carderock, in Montgomery County on the Potomac River. The move, ordered by the nation's military downsizers in 1991, has left many in uneasy limbo.

"Anybody know the new street address? I sure don't know it," engineer Doug Vaughters, 28, asked as he loaded boxes Friday and prepared to move into a new office today. After the move, he will continue his work on a project to use intense light to eliminate trash aboard large aircraft carriers.

The Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission has cut staff at the technology lab -- where researchers develop materials and machinery for Navy vessels -- and decided last year to close the entire facility over the next couple of years.

Once the first phase of the center's move is completed by November, 400 staffers will be left at the bucolic Annapolis campus. They will be moved out during the next two or three years, most of them to Philadelphia. About 100 of their jobs will be eliminated.

The center, known nationally for its work on submarine silencing and environmental technologies aboard ships, employed close to 2,000 at the beginning of the decade. Washington decision-makers contend that by closing the Annapolis campus and consolidating its research and development work in larger military posts, the Navy will save money.

But for some, it is a painful goodbye.

In Building 125, the weary-looking corrugated metal facility where Vaughters worked, engineers packed books and photographs in brown boxes while making grim jokes about their empty office. Some staffers showed their anger at the move in scrawl on a blackboard.

Signs reading "All Office Spaces Must Be Packed Up By Friday 8-9-96!!!" were taped to doors of an already empty laboratory nearby. Few seemed to want the reminder.

"This is where I started work -- I was going to work here, live here, retire here, die here. This is my home," said Mike Kelly, 50, an engineer who began working at the lab 24 years ago.

Nearly every Friday since June, some staffers have turned in their keys and papers -- not always happily. Staffers such as Kelly say they don't like the idea of commuting more than an hour each way to a new office that some say will be a less friendly, more sterile place.

"We were like a family here," Kelly said. "It won't be that way anymore."

The money-saving move is anything but cheap. The labs in Carderock, where the Annapolis detachment will work, cost $23 million to build. And the government will spend $15 million to transplant the labs and to help employees move closer to the new station.

But the move could reap big profits for the Navy in the future. The 45-acre Annapolis property, with roughly 10 acres of Severn River waterfront near the Naval Academy, is prime real estate. The county government and military are considering new uses for the site, which could become anything from a park to a condominium complex.

The Annapolis center once had much greater cachet. During the Cold War, its engineers created silencing technologies for submarines and gadgets such as depth finders and underwater sonar. Experts developed environmental technologies to control pollution from aircraft carriers that can hold several thousand people.

A promotional brochure from the early 1960s predicted the center would figure out how to build underwater airplanes and harvest food from the ocean floor.

But some think the center is long past its prime. As the labs grew and work on Navy vessels became more elaborate, staffers had a hard time making room for their high-tech equipment in the small research shacks.

Roger Crane, one of the lab supervisors, is excited about his new digs. He will no longer have to dry materials with a makeshift string of heat lamps mounted on a piece of plywood, or suck dust out of the air with an antiquated vacuum machine.

At the facility near Annapolis, he couldn't operate some of the machines to full capacity because he didn't have enough space.

At the new facility, some machines will get their own rooms, computers will sit in dust-free chambers and a large crane will be available for heavy lifting.

"I'm really looking forward to the new place," said Crane, 40. "I love what I'm doing, and if I have to drive extra to do it, so be it."

Pub Date: 8/19/96

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