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THE MIAMI HERALD
U.S. Navy Base Closure Affects 'A Lot Of People'
The Roosevelt Roads Navy base in Puerto Rico is closing, taking with it about 2,500 jobs and $300 million.
BY NANCY SAN MARTIN
February 22, 2004
ROOSEVELT ROADS NAVAL STATION, Puerto Rico - Pennsylvania native Michelle Hoffman came and opened her Splash tattoo parlor near here in 1995 after noticing that the community surrounding this U.S. Navy base did not have one of the sailors' ages-old activities.
''In every port there is a tattoo shop. When I found out they didn't have one here, I jumped on it,'' said Hoffman, 37, whose shop in Ceiba brought in up to $60,000 a year. ``It was great for a long time. We were busy all the time.''
But now her profits have dropped by about half as the 60-year-old base, known popularly as Rosie Roads, winds down and heads toward its official closure March 31 -- a move that will mean the loss of about 2,500 civilian jobs and $300 million in Puerto Rico.
''This is going to be a ghost town,'' said Máximo Menéndez, who had a part-time security guard job at the base. ``A lot of people are affected. People who worked there 20 or 30 years, they have nothing now.''
For some of its neighbors and employees, the base's closing is retaliation for the Puerto Ricans' raucous pressures that forced the Navy to surrender its bombing range on the eastern tip of the tiny island of Vieques, eight miles southeast of Rosie Roads. For others it represents another step toward an end to U.S. colonial presence in Puerto Rico, seized by U.S. troops during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
But for nearly everyone, it is an economic hammer blow that leaves people like Hoffman, Menéndez and others in and around Ceiba, a pleasant town of 18,000, all but gasping and struggling for survival.
''Business has gone down a lot,'' said Daisy Santos, a cashier at a grocery store just outside the base. ``This used to be packed on weekends. Most of our customers were from the base. I guess we'll wait and see what happens.''
The signs are all bad. The number of military personnel, dependents and civilian employees is already down from 6,000 last year to fewer than 2,200. The airfield, port and base hospital have closed. Base schools will cease operations when classes end June 4.
A decade ago, Rosie Roads was the largest Navy base outside the U.S. mainland in terms of area, with more than 30,000 acres that included one-third of Vieques. When it closes, Guantánamo Bay in Cuba will be the only U.S. naval base left in the Caribbean.
Now the Puerto Rican government is trying to figure out what to do with the facility. There are proposals to turn its airstrip into a civilian airport, open its port to cruise ships and convert its housing -- from Spartan apartment blocks to fancier officers' homes -- into condominiums for tourists.
But many remain skeptical of the government plans and point to the lingering impact on the western town of Aguadilla from the closing in the early 1970s of the Ramey Air Force base.
''The impact of Rosie Roads is islandwide,'' said ZoAnn Balcerzak, who was raised in Ramey. ``It's going to have repercussions for a long time. Look at us. It's been 32 years since Ramey closed and we're still suffering from that.''
With Rosie Roads' closing, the lone active-duty U.S. military installation left in Puerto Rico will be the Army's Fort Buchanan near the capital city of San Juan. But its fate remains unclear because the Pentagon has also flagged it for possible closure.
LAST YEAR'S DECISION
The decision to close Roosevelt Roads came last year, after years of simmering opposition to the bombing range in Vieques boiled over following a 1999 accident in which two off-target bombs killed a civilian guard. Range opponents also claimed the bombings harmed the environment and was the source of poor health among Vieques residents.
President Bush ordered the exercises to cease last May and in September signed a bill that gave Roosevelt Roads six months to shut down. The base had been the Navy's key support facility for the war games on Vieques and the waters offshore.
''Who knows whether the U.S. government is now punishing the Puerto Rico government for what's happened'' in Vieques, Balcerzak said. The Navy claims it was not retaliation but simple logistics and finances.
"The reason for the base was to support exercises. When the Vieques function went away, it was no longer feasible to keep the base open,'' said the base commander, Capt. Robert D. Wilson.
"The functions of the base have been picked up elsewhere and it will be seamless.''
Some of those functions have already been shifted to U.S. military facilities in Florida, and the Navy component of the Miami-based Southern Command is relocating to Naval Station Mayport, near Jacksonville.