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Orlando Sentinel

Ceiba Finds Base Closure Bad For Business

By Matthew Hay Brown

August 1, 2005
Copyright © 2005 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

CEIBA, Puerto Rico · Linda Chan surveyed her restaurant and sighed. When she opened Rico City four years ago, its menu of dishes from her native China attracted dozens of lunchtime customers from the nearby U.S. Navy base at Roosevelt Roads.

But at 1 p.m. on a recent weekday, her place was empty. Another restaurant, a convenience store and a clothing shop were padlocked shut. There were few pedestrians, and more spaces than cars parked around the colonial central plaza.

The departure last year of the Navy, along with 6,000 employees and the $300 million they pumped into the economy annually, has hit hard this sleepy community of 18,000 on the eastern tip of Puerto Rico.

Public revenues are falling, unemployment is rising, residents are leaving and businesses such as Chan's are struggling to survive.

"There are no sailors, there are no families," Chan said in Spanish, her second language. "My business has fallen by half. At the same time, the water has gone up, the power has gone up."

Once a support base for invasions of the Dominican Republic, Grenada and Haiti, the Roosevelt Roads naval station was used in recent years to coordinate practice bombing of the nearby island of Vieques. Mass protests following the death of a security guard there in 1999 led the United States to end the air-sea-land exercises in 2003, and the Navy pulled out a year later.

Local and island officials have developed a plan for the 8,600-acre site that would include a science park and a micro-business incubator, a recreational marina and an 18-hole golf course, a passenger airport and a cruise-ship terminal. The existing Navy hospital and school buildings would be converted to civilian use.

Fully developed, officials say, the plan could attract as many as 19,700 jobs. But to residents, relief is a long way off. The main local business association says 15 of Ceiba's 250 businesses have closed as a result of the base closure, and 40 percent of those still operating are in trouble. Unemployment is as high as 20 percent, nearly twice the island average.

"We have to work here," Mayor Gilberto Camacho said. "And the most important factor is how much time it's going to take to develop this."

Some Puerto Ricans, particularly the island's independence supporters, cheered when the Navy lowered the flag over the 60-year-old base in April. But Camacho says the loss of jobs and money has affected the entire east coast of Puerto Rico.

"There were many persons that had houses to rent, not only in Ceiba, but also in Luquillo, Fajardo, Naguabo and Humacao, and they could generally get more money from the service members," he said. "Some units now are empty, and others are rented to people who are paying less.

"For the other part, the restaurants have lost substantially. And there have been losses for the people who gave services, such as mechanics and barbers. It has generated substantial unemployment."

The base closure also has generated funding problems for Camacho. The municipality faces a $2 million revenue gap in its $6.5 million budget. The island government has pledged to meet the shortfall for the first three years, but then Ceiba will be on its own.

Puerto Rico avoided another loss in May when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recommended to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission that Fort Buchanan remain open. The U.S. Army installation in the San Juan suburb of Guaynabo employs about 630 in the mobilization, readying and deployment of about 15,000 National Guard and U.S. Army Reserve troops from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Back at Rico City, Chan has let a cashier go and wonders how much longer she can continue to operate.

"It's difficult now," she said. "The government doesn't help ... I need money."

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