Community looks beyond bombs and bullets
April 28, 2003
HAWTHORNE — Lt. Col. Dave Dornblaser steers his sport utility vehicle past sagebrush-covered bunkers, abandoned bomb-making factories and the longtime economic heart of this shrinking desert community.
He passes an ammunition-storage structure that exploded in an accident decades ago — its scorched frame untouched in disrepair. Rust and broken glass glint from a production building closed after the Vietnam War.
“You can’t turn back the clock,” Dornblaser says, shrugging. “We’re obviously a military facility that’s not in its heyday.”
“Smart bombs” and high-tech weapons systems have chipped away at the military’s need for storage sites like Hawthorne Army Depot, sending Dornblaser and local leaders scrambling to “transform” — a military buzzword that in this poverty-stricken rural area means new, nonmilitary business and jobs.
Artillery shells and bombs stashed in more than 1,600 earth-covered concrete bunkers date to World War II. Manufacturing, storing and shipping them once sustained the local economy.
Now the depot is at about half capacity, storing 300,000 tons of munitions — one-third of it unusable. Though two trainloads rumbled out before the Iraq war, most of the weapons simply aren’t needed. All but two active-duty Army personnel moved out long ago, leaving Dornblaser and Sgt. 1st Class Joe Ingram.
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Residents of the isolated town about 60 miles southeast of Carson City are hoping their desperate search for new business didn’t come too late.
“We’re the classic example of a community that’s spiraling downward,” said Ron Wolven, head of Mineral County’s economic development agency.
More than 16 percent of county residents live in poverty, the highest rate in Nevada. Mineral County lost a fifth of its population over the past decade. Employment at the depot is down to 500 after peaking at 5,625 in 1945.
Wolven shared his latest efforts to lure companies to Hawthorne with a group of aging townspeople over coffee and a breakfast of pancakes and eggs.
He’s in negotiations to bury trash from California in the county’s long-abandoned gold mine pits. He’s also looking to lure an aerosol can recycling plant, operated by a company notorious in Northern Nevada for safety violations that led to a fatal explosion. Together they’d mean 128 jobs.
“For a long time we saw the light at the end of the tunnel and it was the train coming to run us over,” Wolven said, cautiously adding “Now I think we’ve turned the corner.”
Wolven and others say the push away from a bombs-and-bullets economy is tough for locals, who openly celebrate their military tradition.
Hawthorne is gearing up for its 52nd annual Armed Forces Day parade, and travelers on the main highway through town are greeted by an antique howitzer and makeshift windmill crafted from red, white and blue-painted bomb fins.
Yet the vast depot — which opened in 1930 — is now a distinctly civilian operation.
Though the 147,000-acre site has the nation’s largest storage capacity, it’s the only one of eight U.S. Army munitions storage areas operated by a private contractor.
Some local businesspeople think the resulting lack of Pentagon interest is what hurts the community most.
Hotel manager Jack Desai said, “This city was booming until the contractors took over,” in 1980. “I love it here. My children grew up here. But now these walls are caving in, business is so slow.”
Dornblaser, however, touts the depot’s freedom to try new moneymaking ventures.
“We’re just trying to transform, be relevant, be viable,” said the lieutenant colonel, who has become by necessity a sort of military entrepreneur. He made his supervising staff of 30 civilians read “Who Moved My Cheese?” a self-help management book about dealing with change popular among corporate human resource departments.
Dornblaser is making calls to nearby bases asking the Nevada National Guard and Southern Nevada troops to do training exercises in the stark, brown mountains surrounding the depot.
He’s looking to turn Hawthorne into a Western operations center for the Department of Homeland Security, and he’s overseeing preliminary testing this summer to determine whether the depot sits on a geothermal energy lode.
Engineers also are putting the finishing touches on a $30 million furnace to be used for melting down — at 2,500 degrees — the West’s most hazardous unusable weapons.
But even during the recent U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the depot’s Pennsylvania-based contracting corporation, Day & Zimmerman, focused largely on removing explosives from unneeded bombs and selling the scrapped metal.
“It’s been nice and slow lately,” said guard Beryl Adair, greeting Dornblaser on a tour.
The slowdown is largely the result of leaps in technology. The number of bombs and ammunition rounds needed for fighting has decreased dramatically since the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
“Where you used to use 100 bombs, now you’ll use one guided by satellite,” Dornblaser said. “That’s one of the reasons the ammunition community’s getting smaller.”
Military analyst John Pike of globalsecurity.org says all Army depots are feeling “the downside of the precision revolution.”
“You can now win wars with fewer bullets,” Pike said. “That’s good news for Iraqi civilians, because it’s less chance you’re going to get blown up. It’s good news for the American taxpayers. It’s bad news for the ammo industry.”
At least six Department of Defense depots closed in the 1990s, and Hawthorne — having survived as a privately run enterprise — is angling to take in and destroy their aging bombs.
It’s an odd feeling for depot employees like 52-year-old Rita Barnhurst.
The slight, smiling woman began making bombs at age 18 because it was the best-paying job in town. She now volunteers on weekends at the Hawthorne Ordnance Museum, where the Vietnam War-era products of her labor sit inert on the cold concrete floor.
“I get teased at work,” Barnhurst said of having lasted through the depot’s entire cycle of making, refurbishing and then destroying bombs.
She hands visitors brochures advertising a “finfield project.”
The plan is to have Nevada artists paint bomb fins and line them along the highway or inside the museum. Stacy Fisk, also promoting the project, acknowledges the bulbous fins are “not real attractive.”
“But they’re a part of our history, we need to remember it. And who knows? It might bring some tourist money, too.”
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Hawthorne Army Depot