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Ceiba Struggles For Survival


March 30, 2005
Copyright © 2005
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved.

CEIBA, Puerto Rico (AP) -- With her fidgeting baby on her lap, Gloria Reyes counts the few dollars in the cash register and looks balefully at the two customers having cold drinks to fight the tropical heat in her family's restaurant.

Nearby, weeds grow in the lot of a closed gas station, a barbecue chicken restaurant's door is chained shut and only a few people walk this town's once-bustling streets on a sunny afternoon.

``We're barely hanging in. I've lost three-quarters of my business since the Navy and the Americans left,'' said Reyes, 25, whose family owns the La Sombra, an open-fronted restaurant-bar with a large sign featuring an exotic-looking woman meant to attract sailors.

A year after the U.S. Navy left Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, taking with it 6,000 jobs and an estimated $300 million annually, Ceiba is struggling to get by as businesses close, unemployment rises and residents leave the town of 18,000.

An ambitious plan to turn the empty base into a cruise ship dock, commercial airport, tourist resort and light industrial park cannot get under way until an environmental study is completed.

Roosevelt Roads was a support base for U.S. invasions of the Dominican Republic in 1965, Grenada in 1983 and Haiti in 1994. But its main purpose in recent years was to oversee bombing exercises on nearby Vieques island. The exercises provoked protests that contributed to the U.S. decision to end maneuvers on Vieques in 2003 and close Roosevelt Roads a year later.

Officials said about 2,000 troops and civilian personnel moved from the area or were offered jobs elsewhere, and some 1,000 private contractors lost their jobs on the base.

While some Puerto Ricans cheered the naval base's April 1, 2004, closing as the end of a colonial relic, others worried about the impact on the economy and on communities like Ceiba, located at the gates of the former base in eastern Puerto Rico.

Ceiba's main business association says 15 of the town's 250 businesses have shut their doors because of the base closure and 40 percent of those still open are in trouble. The unemployment rate in the town is 17-20 percent, nearly twice the average in Puerto Rico.

``The community took a major hit with the closing of the base. Stores lost income not just from the people who were on the base, but from the departing contractors and the residents of Ceiba who lost the incomes,'' said Ceiba Mayor Gilberto Camacho.

About 100 households left Ceiba after the base closed; the houses now stand empty, Camacho said.

``Some business owners are barely able to pay their utility bills and debts. It's been a tough year,'' said Oscar Delgado, owner of Margie Hardware on Ceiba's main street.

Delgado says business even for stores like his, which didn't directly depend on Roosevelt Roads, have fallen by 15-20 percent. Other businesses, such as bars and restaurants popular with base personnel, have seen revenues plunge up to 75 percent.

At La Sombra -- Spanish for ``The Shade'' -- Reyes says she has lowered the price of beer to $1.25 a bottle to attract customers and started serving food in the morning.

``The breakfasts have helped us scrape by,'' she said.

The base was named for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who ordered its construction in 1940, and after the roads that crisscross its 8,600 acres. In the following decades, thousands of U.S. sailors came to the base and to Vieques to train for conflicts from Vietnam to Afghanistan.

In 1999, errant bombs killed a civilian guard during Vieques exercises, sparking a surge in protests by opponents who contended that the bombing harmed the environment and the health of Vieques' 9,100 residents.

The Navy denied it, but decided to close the range in 2003 and move training to the U.S. mainland. With the end of the Vieques bombing exercises, Roosevelt Roads' main reason to exist disappeared.

Still, some see hope for the future.

Camacho envisions a science park on the former base to draw tourists. He has already asked authorities to give the municipality a bowling alley, a 120-room hotel and a marina from the base.

The federal government has the first option on base property. Officials say the U.S. Army Reserve, the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Postal Service and other programs have requested 250 acres. Then the local government will have the option to request land, and the Navy will be able to sell other property to private buyers.


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