KITTERY – Generations of yard workers have watched as ships set sail from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in the middle of the Piscataqua River.

Established in 1800 and regarded as the nation’s first federal shipyard, Portsmouth has evolved from building wooden ships with masts chopped from New England’s forests to a high-tech maintenance depot for nuclear submarines. It has withstood war, lasted through peace, and thrived through previous base closings.

But those who have seen the shipyard change, and remember submarines plunging into the surf when they were still built there, fear this year’s base closings could bring an end to what has fondly come to be known as “The Yard.”

“To me, closing Portsmouth would be like having my house burn down,” said Paul O’Connor, an electrician and union leader. “Your home is so much more than a place to stay when it’s raining. The shipyard is so much more than a place to work.”

Like military facilities across the country, Portsmouth could be at risk to close as the Pentagon prepares to shutter or scale back a quarter of about 425 military facilities nationwide this year. It will be the first such effort to save money in 10 years and part of a long-term transformation of a Cold War military.

Congress authorized the fifth round of Base Realignment and Closure – commonly known as BRAC – last year. The release of the list of candidates for closure is weeks away but communities that look to the shipyard as an economic anchor already are scrambling to keep the base alive.

A shipyard worker for nearly 30 years, more than half of O’Connor’s life has some tie to Portsmouth. And he’s not alone in his sentiments for the yard’s resilience in surviving four previous base closing rounds.

The base has a storied past. It was the site of negotiations that ended the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 and was home to a naval prison that closed in 1974. Tragedy struck in 1963 when the USS Thresher failed to surface during sea trials and all 129 aboard were lost.

But for many, Portsmouth is more than living history – it’s a paycheck.

Workers at Portsmouth built their first submarine in 1917 and their last about 50 years later. During those years it set records in submarine production and pioneered submarine technology, including the construction of the first nuclear-powered submarine. Its primary mission in recent years has been the overhaul, repair, refueling and modernization of the Navy’s Los Angeles-class submarines.

“It’s a revered place, and people around here want it,” said William D. McDonough, a former shipyard commander who still lives about a mile outside the base’s gates. “Everywhere you go, there’s a tie to this yard.”

Long after his Navy years, McDonough works with Save Our Shipyard, an organization lobbying congressional leaders and military brass, including Navy Secretary Gordon England during a visit last summer, to recognize the base’s role in the nation’s defense, and to keep it open.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has argued that closing or consolidating stateside facilities could save $7 billion annually that would be better spent improving fighting capabilities amid threats from terrorists.

Base advocates say that the closing of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard would translate into a loss of about $185 million in Maine and $123 million in New Hampshire that 4,900 civilian employees return to their communities.

That would have a staggering effect on businesses like Moe’s in Portsmouth, N.H., a sandwich shop that counts on shipyard workers for more than a third of its business, said owner Charlie Pagano.

“Is it going to affect our business if it closes? Absolutely. Is it going to affect the Seacoast? Absolutely,” he said. “There are a lot of small businesses that depend on that shipyard. But as they say, politics is politics.”

Some communities in the area are preparing for the worst.

Officials in Kittery recently received a $175,000 grant from the Defense Department to prepare for the shipyard’s possible closure. It’s a marginal amount but it will be helpful in preparing for the worst, said Paul Schumacher of the Southern Maine Regional Planning Commission, who will be planning how to spend it.

“When you take that much income out of an area, whatever the economic impacts on local businesses are, they’re going to be vast,” Schumacher said. “And because of the size of the shipyard – and the sort of economic engine it is for the region – it’s pretty staggering as to what the impact of a closure would be.”


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