KWAME HOLMAN: It is the nation's first submarine base. For the last 90 years, American submarines and their sailors have come and gone from the port on the Thames River in Groton, Connecticut.
Today, naval base New London, as it's known, is home to 8,500 sailors, who tend to 18 nuclear powered subs, which rotate in and out of riverside pens. The base's extensive history has spawned deep ties to the surrounding community, where one of three schoolchildren comes from a military family, thousands of whom live in row upon row of homes in the neighborhoods near the base and shop along the main commercial strip in a town that grew up to serve them.
So, when the Pentagon announced last month that the New London base was on its proposed list of military bases to close, residents across southeastern Connecticut were dumbfounded.
BUD FEY: Well, first reaction was shock.
KWAME HOLMAN: Bud Fey runs Pop's Kitchen and Laundromat a half mile from the base.
BUD FEY: This community is not the typical military community. The average submarine captain, or admiral, has served three tours of duty in Groton at one point or other in his career, okay? This is home, okay? And these people have become just an integral part of the fabric of the community.
KWAME HOLMAN: Two doors down is barber Joseph Quaratella. He's been cutting hair for submariners for the last 46 years.
JOSEPH QUARATELLA: We're going to lose definitely every customer that leaves the area. We're going to lose them. What else is going to come in? I don't know.
KWAME HOLMAN: If the submarine base is closed, the impact on businesses like Joseph's and others in the region could be devastating. A state-sponsored study said Connecticut and parts of neighboring Rhode Island stand to lose more than 31,000 jobs and $2 billion in yearly income. University of Connecticut economist Fred Carstensen:
FRED CARSTENSEN: For this region it constitutes about a quarter of all current employment in this particular labor market. For the state as a whole, we're talking about something that is close to the total number of jobs that we lost in the recession in the early 90s.
KWAME HOLMAN: But those Pentagon officials who recommended closing the submarine base at New London said their chief concerns were military value and the cost savings that could be gained by shutting down the base. Navy Secretary Gordon England:
GORDON ENGLAND: We are not allowed to consider all the input from the community, frankly. We consider certified data, and our decision's based on that. Now, you can look broader than that, you know, with community input, but it was a military value decision for us. It was a very large savings and in our judgment was the right decision for us to make.
KWAME HOLMAN: Last month, Secretary England led a panel of Navy officials who testified before the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. BRAC, as it's known, is a nine-member independent panel responsible for deciding whether the Pentagon's list of 180 base closure recommendations makes sense.
On sub base New London, the Pentagon said the Navy no longer needs three submarine bases on the East Coast, as the submarine fleet has declined from 100 during the Cold War to 54 today and is expected to drop to 41 subs in the next few years. The Pentagon also said when New London was measured for port quality and training requirements, it ranked well behind the sub bases at Norfolk, Virginia and Kings Bay, Georgia.
Closing the base at New London is expected to cost $680 million immediately, but over the next 20 years, the Navy hopes to save $1.6 billion. Admiral Vernon Clark is chief of naval operations.
ADM. VERNON CLARK: We tried to focus, and you'll see that we have focused largely where we can get return on our investment as rapidly as possible so that we can reinvest in the future.
KWAME HOLMAN: But community leaders in southeastern Connecticut argue the Pentagon's math is faulty and that the base's military value has been underestimated. Tony Sheridan heads the Groton Chamber of Commerce.
TONY SHERIDAN: I think when all the facts are on the table -- if we're allowed to put them on the table -- and compared against the facts that the decision was based upon, I think that we will have a very good opportunity of turning this decision around.
KWAME HOLMAN: And the people of Groton have turned it around before. New London was taken off the base closing list in 1993 after a campaign to save it proved the Pentagon underestimated the cost of moving operations to Georgia. That was on the minds of many residents last week, as the BRAC commissioners arrived in Groton for a firsthand look at the base.
Of the 33 major base closings recommended, New London is the largest, and BRAC Commission Chairman Anthony Principi and member Philip Coyle said it deserved special attention.
ANTHONY PRINCIPI: It has a profound impact on people's lives. People's lives are turned upside down by these decisions, and I'm sensitive to it.
PHILIP COYLE: We need to know what they think because perhaps the Department of Defense didn't get everything exactly right. It's a huge action, and we need to hear from the communities as a tone check to see if we can understand what's been done well and what hasn't.
KWAME HOLMAN: Spread over 687 acres, Naval Base New London is the largest submarine base in the world. It's essentially a town within a town. Along with a grocery and department store, residents can catch a movie or play nine holes of golf. But if the Pentagon has its way, much of the base would be abandoned. Its submarine squadrons, support commands and the nation's only submarine school would be transferred to facilities in Norfolk, Virginia, and Kings Bay, Georgia.
The Navy has acknowledged it will need to spend $275 million at Kings Bay alone to accommodate the additional subs and to house 3,400 new personnel. Federal assistance money would be spent in Groton as well to help the community recover and to redevelop the base. But the long-term savings to the military budget, Naval officials say, would greatly outweigh the short-term expenses. However, economist Fred Carstensen isn't sure how that adds up.
FRED CARSTENSEN: It's very hard to see how that, in fact, satisfies the Pentagon's own criteria, let alone, you know, generates any economic savings given the fact that they're going to have to replicate the infrastructure. And they ought properly to look at what the cost is going to be of relocating the Electric Boat activities because that's going to come along inevitably as well and ought to be part of the calculation.
KWAME HOLMAN: Electric Boat, situated just a mile down-river from the base, has built submarines for its Naval neighbors since 1934. But its close working relationship with the Navy was not mentioned in the Pentagon's base closing proposal. And that surprised Chairman Principi, who admitted he had underestimated the significance of Electric Boat's proximity to the base.
ANTHONY PRINCIPI: There is synergy between Electric Boat here and the New London Naval Base. For example, with new construction when the crew reports and are at the shipyard as the new submarine is being built, they can go over to the training facilities and they can do an awful lot of that training while their new boat is being constructed.
And as a result, we heard today that they can get a sub out into the fleet 18 months earlier than normal just by having that synergy of having the contractors and the sailors and the school at the same location.
KWAME HOLMAN: Executives at Electric Boat said that they will not follow the Navy if it moves south, arguing that submarines still will come to Groton for maintenance and repair. But around Groton, it is widely believed that Electric Boat and its 9,000 employees will survive only if the base is kept here. Union head Ken Delacruz represents 3,500 shipyard workers at Electric Boat.
KEN DELACRUZ: It just makes no sense to move this all down South and to spend all this extra money in their facilities. It just -- it baffles the imagination and, you know, that's why members are concerned about it. You know, we're concerned about, you know, our jobs, of course, but we all live here. This is our community, and we just see the devastation that this will have not only on our folks, but this community at large.
KWAME HOLMAN: In a show of solidarity last week, thousands of Groton residents lined the streets and cheered as the BRAC commissioners' motorcade left town after their visit. Bob Walker has spent the last 33 years on the base.
BOB WALKER: Well, if the BRACS see all this support that's out here for -- along this line today and everything else and they listen to the people, I think we have a chance. We still have a chance to beat this.
KWAME HOLMAN: The BRAC Commission could remove New London from the closure list by a majority vote of its nine members. But history has not been kind to bases once they're placed on a closure list.
During four previous rounds, beginning in the late 1980s, 85 percent of those targeted were shut down. And that fact caused some in Groton to think about a future without the sub base.
JOSEPH QUARATELLA: I'm going to stick it out. I mean, my wife and I, we can live on a loaf of bread a week, you know what I mean? Well, we'll stick it out.
KWAME HOLMAN: Groton officials will have another chance to appeal to members of the base closure commission at a hearing next month in Boston. There they'll be joined by leaders from several other New England communities whose military facilities also face an uncertain future.