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Latest threat of shipyard closure leaves region unnerved

US may target facility in Maine

KITTERY, Maine --Thousands of workers funneled past the two guards at the main entrance to put in another 10-hour day Thursday at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, as a nuclear submarine floated in the harbor awaiting repairs.

The shipyard is the oldest in America, but defense specialists say it is a likely target for closure as the military seeks to cut costs, emphasize technology over manpower, and focus on international terror rather than Cold War adversaries.

The shipyard -- which opened in 1800, two years after the Navy was established -- was first threatened for closure just after the War of 1812, and almost every time the military closes bases, Portsmouth is a candidate.

''You've got families who have worked for generations with this shipyard," said Jonathan Carter, Kittery's town manager. ''They are resilient. But they're nervous."

John Joyal, 49, has worked at the shipyard for 28 years and said he's ''been through four of these" rounds of base closings, ''and I've got a feeling that unlike others before, we have a chance of being victims on this. I hope not. I'm trying to be optimistic."

Scott Higgins, 46, an environmental scientist at the shipyard, was trying to remain upbeat. ''I don't foresee that [the closing] will come to pass," he said. ''If it does, I'll deal with that when it comes. I'd rather remain confident that it will stay open."

A campaign to keep the base open yielded 10,000 letters of support, and the congressional delegation from Maine and New Hampshire delivered the letters to the Pentagon on Tuesday.

A local advocacy group is paying a Washington-based lobbyist about $8,000 per month. A four-town rally is planned on Saturday to show support for the shipyard. Legislators in Maine and New Hampshire last year authorized $100,000 to help the cause, and the New Hampshire Senate is expected to vote this week on appropriating another $100,000.

Meanwhile, officials in Kittery are using a $175,000 federal grant to prepare for the possible closure of the shipyard. They have hired Sasaki Associates, a firm that has also been hired by Massachusetts municipal officials near Hanscom Air Force Base, which also could face closure.

''Most people weren't happy that we were applying for the grant because they thought it meant that we were throwing in the towel," said Ann Grinnell, chairwoman of the Kittery Town Council. ''But you can't go into this blindly and act like nothing's going to happen."

Supporters of the shipyard, which is dotted with rusty cranes and brick buildings with white trim, say workers have proven that they can produce a product that is safe, timely, and on budget. They also argue that there would be a significant economic impact on the region should the Pentagon decide to close it down.

''It's the best shipyard in the country, both on cost and on schedule of performance," said US Senator Olympia J. Snowe, Republican of Maine. ''Frankly, the Pentagon ought to be up there finding out how they can apply some of their standards at the Pentagon."

In 2004, the shipyard had 4,803 civilian employees on its payroll earning a combined $318.3 million, according to an analysis done by the Seacoast Shipyard Association. The shipyard also bought $30.7 million of supplies from New England companies last year, the analysis said.

But defense industry specialists say Portsmouth is a prime target for closure because the Navy is reducing its fleet, private companies can do the same work, and Portsmouth has a relatively limited scope. As the military shifts its focus toward Asia and the Middle East, Maine is no longer in a strategic location, they say, and its specialty -- the nuclear submarine -- is a Cold War relic.

''It's not that they don't do a good job at Portsmouth. They do a great job," said Loren B. Thompson, chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute, a conservative-leaning military think tank in Arlington, Va. ''But the problem is that their skills just aren't very much in demand, and their location is not very favorable."

The 297-acre shipyard is the nation's primary center for overhauling Los Angeles-class attack submarines. The Navy recently announced a long-term goal of reducing its attack fleet, and there have been discussions over phasing out the Los Angeles-class submarines in favor of the newer Virginia class.

The Portsmouth shipyard is competing for survival with three other naval shipyards: Norfolk in Virginia, Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and Puget Sound in Washington state. There are also two large private yards competing for submarine work: Electric Boat in Groton, Conn., and Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. in Virginia.

''If they are going for a shipyard, we're in a precarious spot," said retired Navy captain William D. McDonough, a former commander of the shipyard who is leading the Save Our Shipyard campaign as the head of the Seacoast Shipyard Association. McDonough started Save Our Shipyard in 1964, when Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara had proposed closing the yard by 1974. After an aggressive lobbying campaign, President Richard M. Nixon rescinded that decision in 1971.

In February 2004, the group hired lobbyist Dale F. Gerry, a former deputy assistant seretary of the Navy who for 24 years was a legislative assistant to then-US senator William S. Cohen. Gerry is being paid about $8,000 per month, McDonough said, to work with the Maine and New Hampshire congressional delegations and lobby staffers inside the Pentagon.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld by May 16 plans to release a proposal on which military installations to close. Government officials have estimated that up to 25 percent of domestic military facilities could close as part of this process, called Base Realignment and Closure. By September, a group of nine commissioners will make a final recommendation to the president and Congress.

Because the US Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that the borderline shipyard was in Maine, that state would hold the legal right to oversee redevelopment of the land and buildings and take in new tax revenue if the base were to close.

But it also means Kittery would absorb the costs of providing police and fire services to new residents and educating their children.

There are 200 units of military housing in Kittery and this year the federal government is paying the town nearly $400,000 for municipal services, including education. About 15 percent of the 1,200 students in Kittery schools are affiliated with the military.

In some cases, however, communities that have lost military bases ended up better off in the long run. The closing of nearby Pease Air Force Base eliminated 4,000 military and civilian jobs, but now the redeveloped base is home to nearly 200 businesses employing 5,000.

''People have started saying, We could get a hotel, or a marina, or maybe some high-cost waterfront housing,"' McDonough said. ''To me, it doesn't matter. None of that is going to replicate 5,000 high-paying jobs."

Matt Viser can be reached at viser@globe.com.

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