Twenty years ago today, U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings told a horrified Lowcountry that the Charleston Naval Base and Naval Shipyard were slated to be shut down, tearing an estimated 22,000 jobs out of the local economy.
“I’ll never forget that day,” said Joe Riley, the mayor of Charleston then and now. “It was such a shock.”
It was a Friday evening, in 1993.
The nation was still emerging from a recession, and the military and civilian jobs on the base by some accounts amounted to a third of the local economy.
And it wasn’t just about jobs and money. Naval culture and tradition permeated the area.
“Charleston was a Navy town, and proud to be a Navy town,” Riley said. “There was not a neighborhood in the region that didn’t have a shipyard worker, and there wasn’t a church or civic group that didn’t have a connection to the shipyard.”
This was the facility that built more than 200 ships that helped win World War II. So many people worked there that 20,000 housing units were constructed — helping build the city that later became North Charleston.
“That’s how a lot of the housing projects that we are redoing today got going then,” said North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey. “North Charleston developed around those.”
The base and shipyard had been created in the early 1900s and grew into a military facility the size of a small city by the height of World War II. In the 1990s, it was a top Navy facility where nuclear submarine crews were trained, and the home port of destroyer and submarine squadrons.
But by then, the United States had a larger military than it needed or could afford. A series of layoffs, known as reductions in force, already had begun at the shipyard in 1991.
Charleston and other cities fought for their bases, knowing the economic impacts would be huge. Fewer people would have jobs, and money with which to buy cars and homes, costing the area even more jobs.
“If you look at the surrounding neighborhoods, we had the Pinehaven Shopping Center close and the Naval Hospital close,” Summey said. “It made us realize how we all received some benefit from everyone who worked there and shopped in their own communities, and also from the suppliers.”
The base and shipyard had stared down threats of closure before, following the first and second world wars, but in the early 1990s with the Cold War ended, things were different.
“I was very concerned about individual families,” said Goose Creek Mayor Michael Heitzler, who also was a school principal at the time.
“Blue-collar workers were really the lifeblood of Goose Creek,” he said. “They were going to have to take early retirements, get bought out or move.”
Riley, Summey and other local officials had worked hard to persuade the Base Closure and Realignment Commission to spare Charleston. There were trips to Washington and hearings in Charleston. Commission members were invited to dinner in local homes to make it more personal.
Summey, whose father was a shipyard retiree, said the closure meant that 7,000 civilian employees from Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties were facing job losses. That’s in addition to a much larger number of military personnel.
“We didn’t really realize, until closure, how it affected the whole region,” he said.
Efforts to find new employers and economically survive sprung into high gear after Hollings’ announcement.
The region scored a victory when, during a round of military base-closings in 1995, the Charleston area successfully lobbied to gain work from facilities closing elsewhere.
“All that hard work allowed what is now SPAWAR to come here, with all that investment and all those jobs,” said Riley.
Summey, who became mayor of North Charleston in 1994, chaired the group Building Economic Solutions Together.
The BEST commission’s prescription will sound familiar to those in the Charleston area today. It called for developing a container shipping terminal at the south end of the base (which is now expected to open in 2018), creating a private shipyard and maritime industrial park, and creating an office park and recreation areas.
In 1997, just a year after the base closed, The New York Times said Charleston was bouncing back.
“To the surprise of many Charlestonians, their city has survived,” said The Times. “And according to some economic indicators, it has thrived as well.”
Redevelopment efforts continue on the base and shipyard properties today, and a deal to redevelop the shopping center and hospital that closed in the 1990s is close to being finalized, according to Summey.
In Goose Creek, Heitzler said the economy is stronger and more diversified than ever, and Charleston has been thriving.
“Twenty years later,” Riley said, “we can recall how the community rebounded from it, and our economy is stronger than ever.”
Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.
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