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Sunday, May 29, 2005
Copyright Las Vegas Review-Journal

Hawthorne faces losing its identity

After 75 years, town may lose ammunition depot


Lea 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.
Photo by John Locher.

The 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.
Photo by John Locher.

Shelley 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 Locher.

A 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 Locher.

The 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.
Photo by John Locher.

Gary 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.
Photo by John Locher.

Click image for enlargement.


What if all the casinos packed up and left Las Vegas?

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 described it.

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 dirt.

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 run operation.

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 closes."

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 closure.

Hawthorne area residents and officials contend the commission used flawed data in recommending that the depot be shut down.

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 Hawthorne residents.

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 fate.

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 good thing."

A good thing?

First, shutting the depot down will be a huge task, meaning a temporary influx of government people and their money.

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 survive."

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."


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