May 24, 2019

Base closing officials tour Maine facilities

BRUNSWICK – Two additional members of the base closing commission toured Brunswick Naval Air Station and Portsmouth Naval Shipyard on Tuesday, praising the quality of the bases but making no promises on whether they’ll be spared.

Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Sue Turner and former Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner toured the Brunswick base and met with base supporters before traveling to Kittery, where they were greeted by hundreds of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard supporters.

In Kittery, Skinner joked that he and Turner planned for a low-key reception at the submarine repair yard but “low-key is an oxymoron here.” However, he suggested that the community’s efforts to show support weren’t for naught.

“These things do make a difference. It shows the kind of support that a community has for its Navy,” he said. “That’s not true in all of the places we go.”

Tuesday’s visit means two-thirds of the nine-member panel deciding the fate of the Navy bases in Maine will have toured the two facilities.

The Brunswick station visit followed an 8-1 vote by the Base Realignment and Closure commission to add it to the list of those under consideration for closure. The Pentagon originally proposed removing its aircraft and half of its personnel.

Adding the base to the closure list doesn’t necessarily mean it will close, but it gives commissioners more options and flexibility in the decision-making process, Skinner said. In Brunswick’s case, they could leave it open, close it or scale it back.

Supporters have argued that keeping the last active military airfield in New England open is vital to the national defense, and that it makes little sense to maintain an active duty airfield without airplanes as the Pentagon originally proposed.

If the base were scaled back, its entire fleet of planes would be sent to Jacksonville, Fla., and more than 2,300 jobs would be cut, representing roughly half the base’s work force.

Rick Tetrev, chairman of the Brunswick Naval Air Station Task Force and a former second-in-command at the base, said he remains optimistic that the message is getting through to commissioners. Every base visit by commissioners gives supporters one more chance to make their case.

“We’re not lawyers and we’re not lobbyists,” Tetrev said. “We can speak from our heart and with conviction.”

In Brunswick, the commissioners said they asked pointed questions and that they’ll use the information to help make a decision on the fate of the base.

“It’s not fair to reach any preconclusions other than it’s a great facility and there’s a lot of support in the community,” Skinner said.

Turner said it was helpful to get a firsthand look at the base.

“It was important to get up here and see it for myself, so I’m really glad we had the opportunity to do that,” she said.

Afterward, Turner and Skinner traveled southward to the shipyard. When they arrived, they were greeted by crowds dressed in yellow “Save Our Shipyard” shirts and waving signs of support.

If the shipyard closes, it would result in more than 4,500 job cuts and a ripple effect of tens of millions of dollars through the Maine and New Hampshire economy.

Supporters contend there’s enough submarine work to keep all four existing public shipyards open, and that Portsmouth is the most efficient.

“Why would you close down a place like that?” said Tyler Foss, a 25-year shipyard worker from Dover, N.H. He noted that the shipyard always delivers submarines back to the Navy ahead of schedule and under budget.

Afterward, Maine Gov. John Baldacci and New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch joined the commissioners at a news conference.

Turner was asked whether there is excess capacity in the public shipyards as the Navy contends. Portsmouth supporters contend there is no excess capacity, and eliminating the shipyard will cause delays and backlogs.

“I don’t know yet,” she said. “That’s one of the things we’re looking at. That’s a real key point. But I couldn’t tell you today.”

The commission will forward its final recommendations on hundreds of military installations nationwide to the president by Sept. 8. The president has until Sept. 23 to accept or reject the recommendations in their entirety.

If accepted, Congress has 45 legislative days to reject the recommendations in their entirety or they become binding.

AP reporter Jerry Harkavy in Kittery contributed to this report.

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