SOLOMONS – Air Force retiree James Joyner has been all over the world — Puerto Rico, Newfoundland, California — but his favorite place to watch the sun set is Solomons.
“This is one of the most gorgeous places in the world to watch the sun set,” Joyner said, pointing over the Patuxent River toward the horizon.
The retired master sergeant said he has been watching Patuxent River sunsets for decades from the Navy Recreation Center at Solomons, a 295-acre getaway for military men and women and a retirement retreat for people like him.
“Most of the people who work here know me,” said Joyner, 69, who now splits his time between living in a trailer here and living here in his Virginia home. “Not too many people have been here longer than me.”
Most of the visitors to the center are short-timers, active-duty military officers, retirees and Department of Defense employees who come to the Calvert County facility to relax for weekends and vacations. The center has cottages, bungalows, campgrounds and homes for rent on the grounds, which have tennis, basketball and volleyball courts, pools and miniature golf.
Opened in 1971, the center now attracts as many as 500,000 visitors a year, for everything from day visits to longer stays, said Kathryn Glockner, with the Morale, Welfare and Recreation office for Solomons and the nearby Patuxent River Naval Air Station.
Glockner said the center, which she called a “national asset,” is the only Navy facility of its kind. While it is run by the Navy, however, the Solomons center is open to active members or retirees from any branch of the military.
But most of the people here on a weekday are retirees.
Some bring their trailers and stay from April until November. The trailers are parked close together, and all the retirees know each other, said Louis Mastella, a retired Air Force master sergeant who has been coming to the center since 1983.
They worry about persistent rumors that the center, their temporary retirement home, could be targeted in the next Base Realignment and Closure round, which is coming up this month.
“We’ve been on the list before,” said Raymond Flack, 66, a retired Navy petty officer who lives in Denton when he is not at Solomons.
They think the recreation center would be an attractive target for Defense Department budget-cutters.
The only strictly military use of the property is a contractor on the grounds, DynCorp, that rehabilitates equipment for the Patuxent River base and employs about 150 people, said Todd Morgan, president of the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance.
And the retirees note that riverfront land of the center is itself worth a lot of money.
“It will be a goldmine for whoever grabs it,” Mastella said.
Calvert County officials say that closing the recreation center, while it would be a blow to the service members and retirees who use it, would hardly qualify as a disaster for the county.
“It would not be the worst thing in the world to get that property back on the tax rolls,” said Jim Shepard, director of the Calvert County Department of Economic Development.
Shepard said he could not put a specific value on the property, “but it would certainly be in the millions.”
Besides being waterfront property, it is also already zoned by the county for “town-center” use, making it available for development for businesses and residents, Shepard said.
But the folks at the Navy Recreation Center say it is one of the only morale boosters left for military retirees in the area.
“We contributed our part for the country, so we deserve something too,” Mastella said.
He said he and his wife have great friends who they look forward to seeing every year at the center, where Mastella said he has always been able to get outside and let his hair down.
Flack said the loss of the center would be a loss to active military, too, since it is the closest place for people stationed in Washington or Virginia to go to relax for a weekend. Other recreation centers are just “too far,” he said.
Joyner acknowledges the possibility, but said he is not too worried the center will close.
“They’ve been talking about that for years,” he said, sitting on the back of his pickup truck, which is loaded with hardware and gardening tools. The former “poor sharecropper from North Carolina” plans to use this summer to work on his small garden plot at the recreation center.
“Being a farm boy, I love to watch things grow,” he said, squinting into the sunlight.
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