Shipping out Town worried about effect of subs' reassignment

Saturday, May 11, 2002

ST. MARYS, Ga. -- Business tripled for Meg Lawrence a year ago when she moved her buffet-style restaurant with its sidewalk carry-out window to a shopping center not far from the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base.

Sailors started coming to Meg's Diner several times a week for the $7 buffet, eating barbecued ribs in their starched white uniforms.

Like many in this southeastern Georgia city, Lawrence anchored her economic fortunes to the nuclear submarine base and its more than 9,000 employees.

But now some of her best customers are shipping out for good.

This summer, two of the 10 Trident nuclear submarines stationed at Kings Bay will be reassigned to the West Coast, taking 636 sailors, a $27 million payroll and an estimated 1,400 family members with them.

"It's going to hit the economy hard," says Lawrence, wearing her apron and a ball point pen in her hair. "That's quite a few people to be gone all at once. I know it's going to hurt us for a while."

Worried by the "For Sale" signs that began multiplying in her neighborhood, Lawrence recently laid off three of her five employees.

The USS Kentucky and USS Pennsylvania leave Kings Bay for their new home base at Bangor, Wash., in May and July.

Being refitted

The reshuffling is part of the Navy's decision to temporarily take out of service four of its 18 ballistic missile submarines so that they can be refitted to carry conventional weapons.

All four subs slated for conversion are based at Bangor, across the Puget Sound from Seattle; two of them will go to Norfolk, Va., while the other two will be converted at the nearby Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.

The two subs from Kings Bay are being reassigned to Bangor to shore up the nuclear fleet there. Their arrival is expected to cushion the economic impact on Bangor.

Kings Bay has been the backbone of Camden County's economy since the 1980s, when it became the East Coast base for the Navy's Trident subs. It has an annual payroll of $298 million and employs more than half the county's 17,000 workers.

Residents remember how the economy suffered from the loss of 1,000 Kings Bay jobs in 1994 when the Navy decommissioned the submarine tender USS Canopus. Several small businesses closed as a result.

But Chamber of Commerce president Carla Carper says Camden County should weather the loss of the two submarines much better.

Camden County, population 43,600, grew 45 percent between 1990 and 2000, largely because of an influx of retirees and commuters with jobs in nearby Jacksonville, Fla.

"We really had been warning our business community for a number of years because we knew this was going to happen," Carper says.

'An arduous lifestyle'

Some sailors are staying, though it is unclear how many. The base has let some sailors who don't want to move trade assignments. Others plan to keep their homes here so their wives and children can stay.

"This is where they've brought their wives. This is where their kids have gone to school. Or they've got a girlfriend or a fiancee in the area," says Petty Officer 1st Class James Phillips, a crew counselor on the USS Kentucky.

He adds: "Right now, keeping people in the Navy and quality of life are such a big priority. It's an arduous lifestyle. And anything we can do to help them, we're going to do."

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