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In Puerto Rican Town, Navy Is History, The Future Hazy


April 1, 2004
Copyright ©2004
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

The people of Ceiba, P.R., have big plans for Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, which officially closed Wednesday, but stumbling blocks remain.
Richard Perry/The New York Times

CEIBA, P.R., March 31 — The people of this coastal hamlet never resented making room for the American military, unlike their neighbors on Vieques, the island where the Navy conducted bombing exercises until last year. Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, which opened here in 1943 and later supported the Vieques operations, had long pumped money into the town of 14,000 and kept it lively.

So when Congress and President Bush decided last summer to close the base on March 31, much faster than the typical shutdown of a military post, many here feared the worst. That is, until they decided they might have a golden real estate opportunity on their hands.

Now, as the rambling base on Puerto Rico's northeastern coast goes dark, taking with it 1,300 civilian jobs and the $300 million a year that it had pumped into the Puerto Rican economy, the people of Ceiba are breathlessly polishing proposals to redevelop its 8,600 acres. They, along with the administration of Gov. Sila M. Calderón, envision a port for cruise ships and an aquarium where battleships once docked, a regional trauma center on the old naval hospital site, kayaking tours through the mangrove swamps and posh housing along the waterfront, which affords views of Vieques, the Virgin Islands and the fog-veiled mountains of El Yunque rain forest.

And that is only the beginning.

"If the base is going to be redeveloped, we have to redevelop the town, too," said Horacio Hernández, who heads one of the community groups submitting ideas for the property. "Like the restaurants: now we have Burger King, simple Puerto Rican food; we need a steakhouse, a lobster place. We need to be more attractive, more special."

A year ago, nobody was expecting this kind of upheaval, at least not so soon. The Navy abandoned Vieques last May, after years of passionate protest from residents who said the bombing had contaminated their idyllic island and made many of them ill, and from American politicians and movie stars who supported their cause. Soon afterward, Congress passed a bill to close Rosey Roads, as the base is known, within six months of enactment and put the vast, horseshoe-shaped property up for sale. The president signed the legislation in September.

Many in Puerto Rico saw the move as retaliation for the longtime opposition to the Vieques operations, but the Navy said that without Vieques, it simply had no use for Roosevelt Roads. When the Puerto Rican government protested plans for the sale, however, Congress agreed to shut down Rosey Roads under standard base-closing procedures, which give the affected community a say in the property's fate.

Now Puerto Rican leaders say that what happens to Rosey Roads and Ceiba (pronounced SAY-bah) can be a model for the wave of base closings around the country that the Defense Department is to propose to an independent base-closing commission next year.

There is a difference, though: the Pentagon usually allows three to five years for a closing, giving the community time to adjust. "Nobody has ever had to deal with this collapsed a time frame before," said David MacKinnon, associate director of the department's Office of Economic Adjustment. "They are responding admirably to a very difficult schedule."

Which is not to say things will go smoothly from here. Like the Navy property on Vieques, Roosevelt Roads is environmentally contaminated, partly from the tanks that refueled ships off the base's nine piers and planes on its 11,000-foot runway. Though a study is under way, Puerto Rican officials say that at this point no one knows the extent of the damage or how expensive a cleanup would be. Recent newspaper accounts of the contamination enraged the Puerto Rico Independence Party, long the loudest opponent of the island's status as a United States commonwealth.

Factors other than the environmental issue could also affect the fate of the property. Governor Calderón is stepping down this year, and a heated race to succeed her is on. A victory by former Gov. Pedro Rosselló of the New Progressive Party, the chief opponent of Ms. Calderón's Popular Democratic Party, could mean a scrapping of the plan that her administration put together. In an interview, Mr. Rosselló said his vision for the property was of a terminal where large ships coming from points south could transfer goods to smaller ships.

"That would be a good alternative," he said, "to make Puerto Rico a significant point in world shipping."

Some predict that whoever wins the election, ambitious plans will stagnate, as they did after Ramey Air Force Base, on Puerto Rico's western coast, closed in the early 1970's, devastating the town of Aguadilla.

Others, like Karebee Tirado, who works at a rental car outlet outside town, are not much fond of the big plans to begin with. Ms. Tirado said new tourist attractions on the base property would only further squeeze mom-and-pop business downtown.

Michelle Hoffman, a native of Pittsburgh who opened Splash Tattoo near the base's main gate in 1995, said she had lost more than half her business since last summer and had fired her staff of three tattoo artists.

Yet Ms. Hoffman, 38, is not among those mourning the Navy's departure. She has built up enough of a local clientele to survive, she said, and prefers Puerto Rican clients anyway.

"I don't think many local people like the military," she said. "They wanted to be catered to, waited on, and acted like they were better than everyone here. They bought a lot of stuff, but that's it."

There was no joy, however, on the face of Ruth Morales, Ms. Hoffman's receptionist, as she told of previously earning $70 or more a day doing laundry for federal officials who were on visits to the base or driving them to the San Juan airport.

"Everyone in Ceiba owes a big thanks to the Navy," said Ms. Morales, who worked on the base for 15 years. "It was something secure for us. Now everything is dead."

Terry Aguayo contributed reporting for this article.

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