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Roosevelt Roads Closure: Gov’t Minimizes Impact; A Multi-Faceted Resource; Ceiba Residents Want It Retained; Retailers Hit The Hardest

Government Tries To Minimize Impact Of Roosevelt Roads’ Closure

By Joanisabel Gonzalez-Velazquez of WOW News

July 12, 2003
Copyright © 2003
WOW NEWS. All rights reserved. 

CEIBA -- The central government and the municipal administration of this east coast town are working on a plan to minimize the adverse economic impact of the imminent closure of the Roosevelt Roads Naval Base (RRNB).

According to Ceiba Mayor Gerardo Cruz, the plan will offer the municipality an opportunity to revamp its damaged economy and provide employment opportunities to its population, estimated at 18,500 residents.

Upon his arrival from Washington, D.C., Cruz told WOW News on Friday that Congressman Ron Lewis—who proposed the closing of the base established in 1943—has asked Resident Commissioner Anibal Acevedo Vila to present a proposal for the management of the 8,000-acre site 45 minutes from San Juan.

Cruz said Lewis’ petition can be understood as congressional intention to transfer part of the base’s territory to the central and the municipal government, which he said "gives the people of Ceiba a real opportunity for development."

Cruz attended a Friday afternoon meeting with Economic Development Secretary Milton Segarra and representatives from the Ports Authority, the Economic Development Bank, the Housing Department, and the Transportation & Public Works Department. The plan must be submitted to Lewis by the beginning of August.

The municipality has a $6.5 million budget, and its residents have an average annual per capita income of $22,086, one of the highest on the island.

But most of the budget comes from municipal fees paid by establishments and base operations; the U.S. Navy estimates base operations bring nearly $300 million to local economy.

That is the main concern of Ceiba’s residents and base employees living in nearby towns who might lose their jobs after the base’s closing, expected to be completed in 2004.

The plan reportedly envisions transforming RRNB’s runway into a regional airport, and using its pier facilities as a new maritime terminal for Vieques and Culebra.

At the same time, Cruz said he met with one of the top government officials in the National Forest Service about developing a nature conservation and recreational park using Piñeiro Island and the RRNB facilities, which are rich in wetlands, crabs, manatees, and other natural treasures.

Cruz will the visit National Forest Service Refuge in St. John in August to evaluate the federal agency’s initiative on that island.

The mayor said Segarra and other government officials will hold a press conference in Ceiba next week to give further details on the plan.

Roosevelt Roads: An Ally In Other Fields

By Joanisabel Gonzalez-Velazquez of WOW News

July 13, 2003
Copyright © 2003
WOW NEWS. All rights reserved. 

For many Ceiba residents, the Roosevelt Roads Naval Base (RRNB) is their workplace; for others, it is the place to buy groceries or receive medical treatment.

But for Prof. Felix Roberto Torres, the naval base is another classroom, a training center for future professionals and a great support to the school proper maintenance.

Torres has been principal of the Santiago Iglesias Pantin High School for 13 years, and if the base closes operations, students will lose the opportunity of applying their knowledge in a real workplace, which also gives them the opportunity to practice English.

"If the base closes, which we do not want, we will lose a work-practice center and also a possible workplace for graduates," said Torres, who spoke to WOW News at the school facilities in Ceiba.

The school’s vocational program offers commerce, secretarial sciences, and automobile mechanics to more than 150 students, including the ones in the special education program. Of all the students participating in the program, the base or its establishments hired from three to five students once graduated per academic year.

Torres noted that RRNB gave training opportunities to nearly 18 special education students.

The lack of a similar program, according to Torres, will force graduates to leave their hometown seeking better opportunities and will cause the loss of human resources.

Ceiba has nearly 3,000 students in its five schools, and a total population estimated at 18,500 residents. Its literacy rate ranks 94.

Torres also said the school he heads and the town’s intermediate school will lose the support provided by the base through its contractors’ sponsoring projects for schools.

"ITT, which is one of the base’s contractors, built this cubicle, gives periodical maintenance for the air conditioning system, and if we need some repairs, they came without hesitation," said Torres.

The professor with 37 years of experience also mentioned that schools and other municipalities have received equipment donations from the base.

Finally, Torres envisions Ceiba’s future with skepticism if RRNB closes operations and hopes that "if the nation to which we belong decides to close the base, at least we should benefit from the facilities of it."

Ceiba Residents Prefer That Roosevelt Roads Stay

By Joanisabel Gonzalez-Velazquez of WOW News

July 12, 2003
Copyright © 2003
WOW NEWS. All rights reserved. 

In Ceiba, there are no signs against the U.S. Navy, complaints against the Armed Forces, or anti-American phrases.

In Ceiba, there are people urging the Roosevelt Roads Naval Base to stay, according to an informal poll conducted by WOW News among some residents of this east coast municipality.

Julio Romero worked for the base for 34 years, and he believes that the naval base has been a tremendous source of income for the municipality.

"I am a veteran, and I receive medical services at the base’s hospital. I also buy all the groceries I need at the base," said the 85-year-old veteran.

The man predicted a debacle in the town if the base closes.

Two other retirees, Flor Parrilla and Ruben Feliciano, agreed that the base’s closure would leave thousands without jobs, including people from nearby towns.

"I never worked for the base, but almost eight of my relatives work there," said Parrilla.

Feliciano, who returned to his hometown after decades outside the island, said he feels sorry for those who are laid off.

Police officer Delgado lamented the closure of the base, since some of his friends work at the military installations, but he expressed concern regarding the support military facilities give to the Police Department to stop drug trafficking.

The policeman said law enforcement authorities have advanced in the fight against drug trafficking thanks to the Navy’s technology.

According to Delgado, military radars are essential to detect suspect vessels overseas, which might be possible drug dealers trying to enter Puerto Rican shores.

"When they see a suspect vessel, they notify local authorities, and we do the job. It seems that we are going to have more work to do in that aspect if the base closes," said the officer, whose friends working at the base will be laid off in November.

On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that orders the closing of the base no later than six months after it is turned into a law. Later, Resident Commissioner Anibal Acevedo Vila was able to include specific wording in the bill to transfer military land to the central and municipal government in case the base ceases operations.

The base generates over 7,000 jobs in the eastern part of the island, and the Navy contributes with more than $1 million in municipal licenses. Over all, Navy estimates revealed that the military base operations generate nearly $300 million to the local economy.

Since last year, once military maneuvers in the municipality of Vieques concluded, hundreds of people has been laid off or relocated to other military facilities in the mainland. Besides, about 8 military units have abandoned Roosevelt Roads, like the Army South.

During a tour around the town’s surroundings, WOW News observed many abandoned properties, streets are in bad condition, and buildings like the City Hall and the public library showed poor maintenance. More than a dozen signs of properties for sale or rent were seen.

Ceiba’s residents said that house rental was another source of income for a lot of residents, and since the beginning of the military transfer, most renters have lost their income.

In addition, military personnel who bought properties in the town and were transferred to other military bases are selling them.

A woman who spoke to WOW News but asked not to be identified said she does not want the base to close.

"I don’t want the base to close. My husband has been working over there for 33 years. How is he going to find a new job? There is nothing else here," said the woman, who has two children. "It is not easy," she added.

Housewife Cynthia Laboy, mother of two girls, is also opposed to the base closure.

"There are a lot of jobs that will be lost, like it is happening already. It is very sad," said Laboy, who acknowledged that various friends work at the base.

Paquita Matos, on the other hand, is a resident of Humacao but travels to Ceiba frequently. The 75- year-old lady has a son in Ceiba, and she said the closure will be a disaster for the already damaged town.

She noted that there a lot of people from nearby towns like Humacao, Fajardo, and Naguabo who work at the base, and if the base closes, those employees will lose their income to support their families.

Interviewees revealed mixed feelings in terms of the government’s efforts in favor of the base permanence and know little or nothing about the government’s strategies to create job opportunities and the land’s use if it is finally transferred to local agencies.

Roosevelt Roads Closure Hits Ceiba’s Retailers The Hardest

By Joanisabel Gonzalez-Velazquez of WOW News

July 14, 2003
Copyright © 2003
WOW NEWS. All rights reserved. 

CEIBA -- The closure of the Roosevelt Roads Naval Base (RRNB) will tremendously affect the lifestyle and income of thousands of Ceiba’s residents, but the base’s downsizing in recent years has struck small businesses the hardest.

Now, the base’s imminent closure darkens the retailers’ future prospects.

That is the opinion of many small entrepreneurs in Ceiba who talked to WOW News about the future if the military base shuts down operations, an option that the U.S. Congress is considering, and which seems imminent after Congressman Ron Lewis proposed the closure of RRNB in a six-month period.

Samuel Santiago, owner of Chequera La Seyba, said he is still in business because he and his wife are the only ones running the checks cashing establishment.

Santiago has lost 40% of the total volume of checks he used to cash. The greatest decrease has been in the last five months, he said.

The retailer, who has been in operation for the last 20 years, said that the base’s closure was something he expected, but he hadn’t expected it in the near future.

Santiago noted that military personnel were not constant customers, since most of them acquire goods at the base’s commissaries or visit nearby malls, but civilian employees are.

Santiago said the crisis is bigger due to the lack of cohesion among retailers.

"We have been trying to organize an association, and it has been very difficult; there is no cooperation. Now that we are going through tough times, it seems it is going to happen," explained Santiago.

Santiago believes that the development of the 8,000-acre site—if it is transferred to local authorities—could represent a bright future for Ceiba.

Pharmacist Myrna Gomez, owner of America Drug Store, and her husband Nicolas Delgado are concerned about their future, the base’s former employees, and those who will be laid off in the following months.

"Our drugstore depends mostly on Health Reform patients, base employees, and those who have medical insurance provided by the base," Delgado said.

Revenue losses will force Delgado and Gomez to take drastic measures to survive and to keep the drugstore.

"We will need to reduce operations," said Delgado, who bought the drugstore 14 years ago and has created 11 direct and indirect jobs.

Delgado and Gomez believe that the base has great opportunities for tourism development, but there are many natural resources that also need to be conserved.

A tour around Ceiba’s downtown showed many closed establishments, from restaurants to medical offices. Most of the empty structures showed poor maintenance, and some residents say the area resembles "a ghost town."

Maria Avila, chairwoman of the Ceiba Retailers Association, has fought fiercely against the town’s decline.

The entity was created several years ago but was inactive until 2000, when it was reorganized and Avila took the helm.

"There is nothing here; there are no clothing stores, shoe stores, even furniture stores," said Avila.

Avila, owner of "Tony the Leader Service Center," said that in Ceiba, businesses do not flourish. "In Ceiba, businesses do not make money; we survive," she said, noting that in a five-year period more than 15 businesses have closed operations.

Her car repair and vehicle inspection center has also been affected. More than 50% of Avila’s customers are base employees, and she holds a contract with the federal government to repair and maintain its fleet.

However, Avila is looking forward. She is working on a brochure to promote her services and is negotiating with a banking institution to get a credit card for her customers.

Avila recalled the time when the base’s activity generated lots of revenue for retailers and she blamed past and present municipal administrations for damaging the relationship between the base and the town.

Avila noted that Ceiba does not have other job opportunities because there are no manufacturing operations or other big economic activities which generate the number of jobs RRNB does.

The entrepreneur lambasted the central government for not taking remedial action before the base closure and said local authorities have neglected with the people of Ceiba.

She recalled a meeting held on May 28, 2002, with former Economic Development & Commerce Secretary Ramon Cantero Frau, other government officials, and military personnel. At the time entrepreneurs made a commitment to find an alternative to the crisis but nothing has happened.

"Here, there is no alternate plan (to the base closure). We have not seen any other official, representative, or senator, and we now have the mayor lobbying to get the base’s land, but the U.S. Navy can keep the property if it chooses to.We have to look for alternatives beyond the base or the land, and nothing has been done," said Avila.

Finally, Avila said the central government must be ashamed of Ceiba’s damaged condition and poor development she said the same conditions can be found in in Vieques and Culebra.

The Navy has owned properties on both of those islands for more than six decades, and used them for military maneuvers. Along with those sites, RRNB formed the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility, used by the Navy to prepare its troops with 12 different types of military exercises.

Roosevelt Roads also served as a training facility and base for Navy vessels and aircraft during World War II.

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