Shipyard Stands Tall 10 Years After BRAC
Jesse Scardina, Portsmouth (NH) Herald, May 10
It was Friday the 13th, and he along with 2,000 other Portsmouth Naval Shipyard employees were on the grassy knoll in the center of the base. The shipyard, a standard setter up to that point, was placed on the Base Realignment and Closure list, also referred to as the BRAC list. It's a potential death sentence for any base, and the fallout of a closure to surrounding communities is extraordinary.
"I told the workforce, 'There's an army of media out there and I'm going to tell them what I think. I'd be proud walking beside anyone of you,'" O'Connor said. "After that, 2,000 of us walked off the island."
The shipyard was taken off the list after the BRAC commission toured the base in June 2005, its members fighting through a sea of yellow as roughly 8,000 people lined the streets in "Save Our Shipyard" shirts.
Yet, O'Connor, a longtime shipyard employee and president of the metal trades union, and other workers know the threat of closure always looms, no matter how much the shipyard grows or how well it performs.
"The reality is we're in the same position right now as in 2005," O'Connor said. "We're still innovators and thinkers, and doing things here that others aren't able to do. But was that enough in 2005? No it wasn't. The system is political."
The Defense Department argued to Congress in 2014 for another round of base closures, with some lawmakers, including Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, strongly rejecting the proposal, which in its budget recommended another BRAC commission to be set up in 2017.
Former BRAC Chairman Anthony Principi said in 2014 that while another BRAC is inevitable, PNSY is well-positioned to stay off the list. "In 2005, I came away convinced it's the best shipyard in the Navy," Principi told seacoastonline.com in October 2014. "And I see no reason to change my mind."
John Joyal, a training instructor on the shipyard and outspoken advocate of the base, said the yard was in just as good a position now as it was in 2005 leading up to its place on the closure list.
"BRAC is on the horizon," he warned. "It needs to go away once and for all."
Changing Of The Guard
A lot has changed since 2005, the last time closure of PNSY was a critical concern. The shipyard has increased its employment from roughly 3,500 to 5,000, with more growth expected over the next several years. With that growth comes a new generation of workers. Many new employees were just high school and college students the last time their place of work was in serious danger of closing.
"There are a lot of new people coming in here that may not be aware of the process or the history of the BRAC commission," Joyal said. "Most people don't pay attention to the political part. They just do their jobs. We train our workers and teach them the standards of this shipyard and have them understand the ownership and responsibility and pride for working here."
Joyal said he researches the rumblings about base closures on his own time, paying attention to the political process.
O'Connor said a future potential closing isn't on the mind of the workforce, nor should it be. "The way we approach it is we can't sweat the BRAC every minute," he said. "What we can do is control what is in our ability to control and let our performance take care of itself."
The 2005 BRAC commission estimated it would cost roughly $21 billion to follow through with the recommended closures, yet a Government Accountability Office report said it was closer to $35 billion.
"All the numbers show that the 2005 BRAC didn't save anywhere near as much money as DoD said, and it cost a lot more," O'Connor said. "But the politics of it is still there."
'Imagine If That's Not There'
The Seacoast Shipyard Association will release its annual economic impact study on May 19, detailing the economic importance of the base, including the income to local residents working on the shipyard.
In 2013, the shipyard contributed more than $414 million to civilian payroll, much of which was reinvested into local property and area businesses.
"If we closed in 2005, we would have displaced 3,500 federal employees. They would have been looking for work and a glut of houses would have ended up on the market," O'Connor said, detailing an ominous area recession that would have occurred a few years before the nationwide recession. "Real estate would have plummeted worse than it did."
O'Connor said that since 2005 the shipyard has funneled roughly $5 billion into the local economy, which has corresponded with a growth of surrounding communities, including Portsmouth and Kittery, specifically right outside Gate 1 in the Kittery Foreside.
"Imagine if that's not there," O'Connor said. "What would this area look like right now? Since 2005, we have grown the workforce from 3,500 to 5,000, and young men and women are gaining experience in an important business."
Jackie Kielty, owner of Rudders Public House, which opened in 2013 in the Foreside, said she and her husband Jeff would not have invested in the restaurant had the shipyard closed.
"I don't think so," she said. "I don't think anyone would be down here. When the threat of closure was happening, the Foreside was at its lowest point."
Kielty said about 75 percent of her patrons are shipyard employees, whether military or civilian workers. The restaurant hosts the employees of incoming submarines for a free lunch, many of whom come back as regular customers.
"When I left Friday's lunch, the place was full," Kielty said. "And about 85 percent of them had shipyard badges."
A Political Process
The outspoken shipyard leaders question the BRAC process, saying if it were based on standards and production and the base's value, Portsmouth would be in the clear.
"In 2005, the shipyard was No. 1 in the nation in cost, quality, schedule and safety both public and private," O'Connor said. "The only shipyard meeting our standard was us. No one was close, and with that in our arsenal, the Navy and DoD opted to close the shipyard."
O'Connor said the politics of the time played a large factor in earmarking the shipyard's place on the list. Ultimately, it was removed from the list on Aug. 26, 2005, but the Naval Air Station in Brunswick, Maine, closed.
Joyal, who said he was speaking as a Seacoast resident and not a shipyard employee, wondered why the DoD keeps looking to close bases at home rather than looking at the nearly 700 installations overseas.
"We're putting the middle class to work, but the government wants to shut military bases at home," Joyal said. "It's undermining national security here."
A 2014 National Defense Authorization Act prohibited the authorization of any more BRAC listings "until, at the very earliest, the Department of Defense has completed and submitted to Congress a formal review of the overseas military facility structure ..."
Despite the 2014 act, there are continued rumblings of potential BRAC commissions in coming years.
"Sequestration didn't help the cause," Joyal said, referring to the government work stoppage that halted most day-to-day activities at the shipyard in 2013. "The DoD is calling for BRAC, and if it's not 2015, then it will be shooting for 2016 or 2017.
U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., while touring the shipyard Friday, reiterated that there is no support in Congress for base closings at this time.
"There is no support for a BRAC round," she said. "The military has talked about the BRAC, but I can say there is no support for it and I fully oppose it.
"Here's the thing about the shipyard. The submarines they're working on are being produced ahead of schedule. They have work booked out for at least a decade. The need for the shipyard is so apparent."
Ayotte said if a BRAC list did gain support, she is confident PNSY wouldn't approach the list. "We've looked at the work done here," Ayotte said. "And closing this base would have been a huge mistake."
'DoD Knew They Were In For A Fight'
Less than a month after placing Portsmouth Naval Shipyard on the closure list on May 13, 2005, the BRAC commission toured the base. Schools in Kittery remained open, but few students attended, as residents from all backgrounds filled the streets surrounding Gate 1, waving flags, wearing the sunshine-yellow shirts with the mantra on it that would ultimately be fulfilled.
"When DoD put us on that list, they made it personal," O'Connor said. "DoD knew they were in for a fight."
Current PNSY commander, Capt. William Greene, said the shipyard can't speculate on the possibility of a BRAC affecting the base.
"Currently, the shipyard has a steady workload well into future and we have a commitment to fulfill a mission Portsmouth Naval Shipyard does better than anyone else," Greene said. "Delivering excellence in submarine repair, maintenance and modernization for the Navy and our nation."
O'Connor said when rumblings began in 2004 regarding a potential closing, rallies would gather a group of a couple hundred or so. But the day the base was officially listed, the employees and community united.
"Some of us knew up front that we could have a rough go of it," he said. "We were trying to get the awareness out of the potential."
It's a job that is continuous, according to Joyal and O'Connor, as the threat continuously looms regarding a potential closure, no matter the political jockeying that says otherwise.
"I hear rumblings," O'Connor said. "We need to get the word out there. We continue to improve and engage the workforce and hope performance takes care of itself. It may not prevent us from being on a closure list, but it will have an
impact when sensible BRAC commissioners come on to our shipyard."