WASHINGTON – Business leaders in Montgomery and Washington counties Tuesday said the Defense Department’s proposed closing of two military bases in Maryland would mean a substantial economic loss to their communities.
“This was a day we never thought would happen,” said Fred Teeter Jr., executive vice president of the Hagerstown/Washington County Chamber of Commerce, shortly after the Department of Defense announced it plans to close the Army’s Fort Ritchie in Washington County.
The most immediate impact of the closing would be to lower housing prices, Teeter said. “I’d hate to have a house to sell.”
Mark Ruppert, executive director of the Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce, said local officials had been expecting an infusion of about 3,800 employees from a Navy command in Crystal City, Va., to the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Montgomery County.
“Not only would the employees [have been] a big boon to the economy,” but their employers would probably have rented office space in the community, Ruppert said.
Instead, Defense Department Secretary William Perry announced Tuesday the Montgomery County base in White Oak is among the 57 targeted nationwide for closure.
The county has “gone from what looked like this great growth to actually losing the employees at the White Oak facility,” Ruppert said.
“It’s a double-barreled shock to the Silver Spring area,” added Charles H. Atwell, president of the Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce.
About 200 people – all but one civilians – are now employed at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in White Oak, said Lt. Kim Dixon, a Navy spokeswoman.
About 2,250 people – 1,303 of them civilians – are employed at Fort Ritchie, said Ellen Britsch, an Army spokeswoman.
Democratic Rep. Albert Wynn, whose 4th District embraces the White Oak facility, said he is writing a letter to Perry demanding an explanation for the reversal at White Oak.
Wynn and Maryland’s two senators – Democrats Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski – had written to Perry earlier in February expressing their support for moving the Naval Sea Systems Command from Crystal City to White Oak.
Officials in White Oak had been told in 1991 that the facility was being targeted for closure. But in 1993 the independent Base Realignment and Closure Commission reversed the decision, recommending not only that it be kept open, but that it receive employees from the Naval Sea Systems Command.
“We are obviously disappointed at the prospect – and I say prospect because it’s not in the final process – of losing these personnel,” said Wynn, of Prince George’s County.
He added there was a “50 – 50” chance officials could be convinced to keep the White Oak facility open. “This is only the first step in the process,” Wynn said.
The Defense Department’s recommendations go to the base closing commission and then must be accepted or rejected in full by Congress and President Clinton. Hearings on the recommendations begin Wednesday on Capitol Hill.
“These recommendations, though painful, are necessary to achieve the levels of readiness and modernization we need within the budget we have,” Perry said.
“Our armed forces and our budget have been cut by one-third or more, but our infrastructure only about half that,” Perry said. “Today’s recommendations will save the taxpayers and the Department some $18 billion over the next two decades.”
But Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett of Frederick, whose 6th District includes Fort Ritchie, questioned the efficiency of spending about $22 million over the past couple years to expand Fort Ritchie, only to now recommend eliminating it.
The Frederick congressman said about half of the base’s 2,000 employees may be relocated to Fort Detrick, also in the 6th District. -30-