Sunday, May 29, 2005
Copyright © Las Vegas
Hawthorne faces losing its
After 75 years, town may lose
ammunition depotBy RICHARD LAKE
Wolfson touches a name on the traveling Vietnam Veterans
Memorial wall during a visit Tuesday with Pat Burch. Home of
the largest ammunition storage facility in the nation,
Hawthorne calls itself America's Patriotic Home.
town of Hawthorne's identity is tied so closely to the Army
Depot that old bomb casings and other military paraphernalia
are visible all over town. Here, a wandering dog takes a rest
last week outside the Hawthorne Ordnance Museum.
Hartmann, head of the Mineral County Economic Development
Authority, arranges a shirt at her office expressing
opposition to closing the Army Ammunition Depot. Nearly half
the jobs in town are at the depot.
Photo by John
contractor's truck makes its way up a dirt road on the depot's
grounds, which cover 147,000 acres of mostly barren desert.
Photo by John
Hawthorne Army Depot stores close to 300,000 tons of military
ammunition and bombs, such as this load of 750-pound bombs
recently arrived from Guam. From left, Misty McNamara, Dennis
Mathis and Dana Towe stack the bombs in one of about 2,400
concrete bunkers at the depot, which opened in 1930.
Moody, left, is one of the rare residents who say the town
would be better off without the depot. His buddy, Bob Vaden,
helping fix a tractor, once worked at the depot.
image for enlargement.
What if all the casinos packed up and left
That's sort of like what the 3,700 people in this
Northern Nevada town are facing. Nearly half the jobs in Hawthorne
might be about to leave -- and along with them, the town's identity.
"You're tearing the heart out of this community,"
is how the head of the local Economic Development Authority
Federal officials are considering shutting down
the Hawthorne Army Depot, the largest ammunition storage facility in
the nation and the biggest thing in Hawthorne for the past 75 years.
"If the base closes, this poor town's going to go
down from there," said Dawn Gunn, a single mom with 3-year-old twin
boys who works as a janitor at the depot. "There's not a lot of
other work here."
There's not really a lot of anything in
Hawthorne, except U.S. Highway 95, a small casino, a few gas
stations and restaurants and perhaps the world's best civilian view
of thousands of ammunition bunkers.
The depot encompasses 147,000 acres of mostly
barren desert 130 miles southeast of Reno and 300 miles north of Las
Vegas. It's got 2,900 buildings, about 80 percent of them
steel-reinforced concrete bunkers covered in a couple of feet of
The bunkers, which surround Hawthorne, look like
oblong brown igloos with bushes sprouting out the top. They're
visible all along U.S. 95, which doubles as the town's main road.
The depot was opened in 1930 as a U.S. Navy
facility. Its heyday came during World War II, when 13,000 people
called Hawthorne home, half of them military personnel or civilian
employees of the depot.
The Army took over operation of the depot in 1977
and transferred it to a private contractor, Day and Zimmerman, in
1980. The Army retains command of the site now, but it's a privately
The depot holds about 300,000 tons of military
bombs and other ammunition, about half of it so old or useless it's
scheduled for destruction.
It has a military staff of just one person: Lt.
Col. John Summers, a North Carolina native who joked that he's "an
army of one, just like the commercial."
There may be only one soldier stationed there,
but the contractor and its subcontractors employ close to 550
people. There are only 1,200 jobs in all of Hawthorne and just 1,800
in Mineral County, said Shelley Hartmann, executive director of the
Mineral County Economic Development Authority.
Add to the loss of all those jobs the indirect
impact -- those jobless people won't be spending their money at
Safeway, the Pizza Factory or Joe's Tavern -- and it it could kill
the town, some residents fear.
"It's slow now with the base going strong," said
Joe Viani, owner of Joe's Tavern, a dusty old place that's been his
family's business since 1945. "Don't know what'll happen if the base
Lea Wolfson thinks she knows.
"If it closes," she said, "people are going to
have to go to Fallon, drive long distances to get to work."
There's talk in town that the depot's closure
could mean ghost town status for Hawthorne. It'll be like Goldfield,
only without the cool mining artifacts.
"People are going to have to get work. They have
to survive," Wolfson said. "We don't want to see it go."
But there may be reason for good cheer, which
residents say is a hallmark of Hawthorne's people.
The town, whose slogan is "America's Patriotic
Home," celebrates Armed Forces Day like most places celebrate the
Fourth of July. Residents glorify their connection with the depot by
planting old bomb casings in their yards as lawn ornaments.
They really like having the depot around.
But earlier this month, the Base Closure and
Realignment Commission, which everyone calls BRAC, recommended that
the Hawthorne depot be closed as part of a nationwide military
realignment. Pentagon officials estimate the closures across the
country could save taxpayers as much as $49 billion over 20 years.
Final recommendations are due to Congress by
September. That means there's time to lobby against the base's
Hawthorne area residents and officials contend
the commission used flawed data in recommending that the depot be
The most obvious mistake, they say, is that the
commission counted Hawthorne as part of the Reno metropolitan area
when evaluating the potential economic impact the depot's closure
would have on the "local" area. When lumped in with such a huge
population, the loss of a few hundred jobs is trivial.
But if you look at a map of Nevada, residents
note, Hawthorne is a two-hour drive from Reno.
The depot's champions said the report said the
depot employed about 200 people. In fact, it employs nearly 550.
Hartmann said when they tried to point that out
to base closure officials, they refused to address the issue. She
noted that, unlike other communities that might see base closures,
military officials have announced no plans to visit Hawthorne.
Locals are also curious about where all that
stored ammunition might be headed. There's talk that it would go to
the Toole Army Depot in Utah, but that doesn't make sense to
They pointed out that Hawthorne is practically in
the middle of nowhere, which means an explosive accident wouldn't
endanger all that many people. But Toole is only about 25 miles from
Salt Lake City.
Further, Summers said, half the 2,400 ammunition
bunkers in Hawthorne are full. That alone is enough to fill Toole up
completely, he said.
To compare: Toole has about 2 million square feet
of storage space, according to the Army, while Summers said
Hawthorne has more than 7 million square feet.
Whether the depot is ultimately recommended for
closure, Summers said, there's such a backlog that it would take at
least 4 1/2 years to destroy all the ammunition on base that's
scheduled for destruction.
After that, it would cost an estimated $400
million to get the land clean enough for public use.
Even so, locals know that about 85 percent of the
commission's recommendations were accepted in the last round of base
closures, meaning they have only a slim chance of changing their
So, at the same time Hartmann tries to save the
depot, she also must plan for its eventual closure.
"On the one hand, you know it could be a death
blow to the community," she said. "On the other hand, it could be a
A good thing?
First, shutting the depot down will be a huge
task, meaning a temporary influx of government people and their
Second, she pointed out that several hundred
private jobs will be coming to town in the next few months. She also
hopes that, if the base closes, the federal government will pump
money into town for help in converting it into something useful.
"We have to look at both sides of it and keep
positive," Hartmann said. "Pretty much the nature of this town is to
Darn right, said local roofing contractor Gary
Moody, who says his firm is so busy he has to turn business down.
"I say close the (expletive)," said Moody, a
lifetime Hawthorne resident. "Everybody looks at it as a downer. But
there's plenty of work here."