San Diego Union-Tribune

April 9, 2001

San Diego in battle to be homeport for Reagan
   Navy reportedly likes Bremerton, Wash.

By James W. Crawley STAFF WRITER
and Otto Kreisher COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 

A final decision could be two years away, but San Diego seems to be losing the fight to be the home port of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan to rival Bremerton, Wash.

There's a lot at stake. The town that clinches the Reagan, which is under construction in Virginia, gets more than a boost in military pride and prestige -- it will net an estimated $226 million per year in salaries and other carrier-related expenditures.

"It's like having a company employing 3,000 workers," said Kelly Cunningham, director of the Economic Research Bureau, part of the San
Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. "We don't have too many of them here."

For years, San Diego officials thought they had a lock on the Reagan after it completes its first deployment in 2004. The Navy had undertaken a lengthy environmental study on the impact of adding a third carrier at Coronado's North Island Naval Air Station.

So when it was leaked to the media last month that the military was eyeing Bremerton, some area congressmen, San Diego city officials and business leaders vowed to find a way to keep the Reagan.

Opponents and proponents are lining up for a battle likely to play out behind closed doors at the Pentagon. And politics may count. Most -- though not all -- of San Diego's congressional delegation has demanded the Reagan.

Vinson to leave

Although it's too early to tell, Navy sources who spoke on condition of anonymity are suggesting Bremerton may win the sweepstakes.

Sources say Bremerton -- smarting economically from Navy cutbacks during the 1990s -- will be further crippled if no carrier is assigned to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard during the nearly four-year refueling and overhaul of its only carrier, the Carl Vinson, which starts in early 2004.

When the Vinson leaves, so will the ship's $141 million annual payroll, plus tens of millions more in repair and service contracts.

Without a carrier there, base housing and facilities will go unused and some civilian workers at the Bremerton naval shipyard might be laid off, according to Navy sources and Bremerton boosters.

The shipyard, the largest local employer and the only West Coast facility able to handle extensive repairs to nuclear-powered carriers, has seen its civilian work force drop from more than 10,000 employees to about 7,000 because of military downsizing. But in recent years, the Navy has upgraded facilities at the shipyard for carriers.

Navy and Bremerton sources say that San Diego's tight housing market and high cost of living will hurt young sailors.

"It would be wonderful and we're going to lobby for it," said Ed Wolfe, president of the Bremerton Chamber of Commerce.

San Diego proponents say the Reagan should be placed here because the Navy is expanding its piers at North Island Naval Air Station for a third nuclear-powered carrier.

Further, local boosters say the main carrier training area is off the local coast and San Diego is the largest Navy port on the West Coast. And the local folks say that the carrier should have its home port in the former president's home state.

Ultimately, it will be a Navy decision, and so far the signs point to the Reagan going to Bremerton.

'No commitment'

Adm. Vern Clark, the chief of naval operations, recently promised Washington officials that the Navy would not leave the Bremerton facilities vacant while the Vinson is gone.

"The fundamental issue is we have this investment in infrastructure in the Pacific Northwest," Clark told the Bremerton Sun newspaper. "We've got to have capabilities up here when our carriers leave to do their long overhauls and it doesn't make any sense for us to pretend this capability up here doesn't exist."

However, Clark's spokesman, Cmdr. Frank Thorp, later insisted, "He made no commitment."

"People read into that what they want to as far as the carrier is concerned," Thorp said. "No decision has been made on the Ronald Reagan. The proposal that was leaked was simply a proposal."

Other military sources suggest otherwise.

Sending the Reagan to Bremerton would be "the best use of our existing facilities -- maintenance facilities, housing facilities," one Navy official said.

Another well-placed Navy official insisted that San Diego never was officially designated to be the Reagan's home port when it joins the fleet in three years.

There were inferences and assumptions because the new carrier would be ready when the San Diego-based Constellation is decommissioned and because Reagan was a California governor, the official said.

"But there has never been an official designated home port for the Reagan," the official said.

Campaign in Congress

Most of San Diego's congressional delegation disagrees.

Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Escondido, said the community received a signed letter of intent to base the carrier in San Diego.

He and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, have vowed to fight the Navy and put the Reagan back on course for San Diego. Both are senior members of influential House committees that hold the Navy's purse strings.

Neither congressman was willing to say that he would use his political clout to block a move to Bremerton, nor would either rule it out.

But their positions have not been unanimously accepted by the California congressional delegation. Cunningham got only the state's two senators and 20 of 52 House members to sign a letter to the Navy's Clark stating their objections.

Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, opposes the Reagan home porting because he thinks the Navy's environmental study was inadequate.

"I don't think they've proved that basing three carriers there is safe," Filner said.

Several local environmental groups are concerned that radioactive material could leak, despite Navy assertions that its reactors are safe.

Cunningham also is playing the local pride card.

He said former first lady Nancy Reagan is sending a letter opposing any plan to base the carrier named for her husband in Washington state.

The congressman declined to comment about an alternative plan that would relocate one of San Diego's other carriers, the Stennis or the Nimitz, which is to arrive late this year, to Washington state.

But Cunningham's spokeswoman said: "The big issue for us is bringing the Ronald Reagan to San Diego."

Democratic Rep. Norm Dicks, who represents the Bremerton area, hopes military value will play a key role in the Reagan decision.

"All I'm going to say to the Navy is: Make this decision on the merits, in the best interest of the young men and women who will serve on the Reagan," Dicks said.

Dicks said the merits support sending the Reagan to Bremerton, which will have a new carrier pier, has the shipyard and an abundance of low-cost housing.

Some San Diego civic leaders are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

"We share the communities' concern about the possible loss of the USS Reagan, however we feel it would be counter-productive to criticize our friends in the Navy until we know all the facts," Mayor Dick Murphy said.

If the Reagan goes to Bremerton, Navy officials said North Island will be the home of three carriers for the near future, between the time the Nimitz arrives this November and the carrier Constellation is retired in 2003.

And some officials have privately suggested a consolation prize for San Diego: the Vinson. It might move to San Diego after its overhaul and refueling is completed in late 2007, the officials said.

Navy regrets leak

A half-dozen Navy officials in Washington and in Hawaii, where the Pacific Fleet is headquartered, emphasized that a final decision on the Reagan is a year or more away. The deliberations should have remained quietly within the Navy for a long time, they said.

"We got out in front of our headlights" with the news leak, an official said.

Most of the Navy officials said the proposal to base the Reagan in Bremerton started with Vice Adm. Jon Nathman, commander of naval air forces in the Pacific. But others said the idea began with his superior, Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander of the Pacific Fleet. Nathman agreed with the idea and started the staff work, they said.

That work will produce a recommendation to Clark. He will then put his endorsement -- favorable or negative -- on the proposal and send it to the secretary of the Navy.

The decision on where the Reagan will go should be made 18 months before the expected ship transfer, which one official said would be after the ship is commissioned into the Navy, early in 2003.