Hawthorne residents react to possible base closure

HAWTHORNE - This isolated west-central Nevada town of 3,500 near the southern tip of Walker Lake and in the shadow of 11,345-foot Mount Grant has had ups and downs since its beginning in the early l880s.

Named for cattleman William Hawthorne, it was to serve as the main division point of the Carson and Colorado Railroad, and its growth and prosperity was enhanced by the discovery of gold in the nearby mining camps of Lucky Boy, Pamlico, Aurora, Candelaria and Bodie.

In 1900, however, the railroad line was moved, the mines began playing out and Hawthorne went into decline.

In 1930, its fortunes picked up with the founding of the Naval Ammunition Depot, and the population swelled with the coming of hundreds of Navy personnel and civilians assigned to the facility north of town.

But today, Hawthorne once again is on the verge of hard times.

Last Friday, its Hawthorne Army Depot (the Army took over the base from the Navy in 1980) was named by the Pentagon as one of 180 domestic military installations to possibly be closed down in its latest round of cost-cutting and base realignments.

If Hawthorne's closure is affirmed by the independent nine-member Base Closing and Realignment Commission, which must make its recommendations to the president and Congress by Sept. 8, this Mineral County seat would lose its main employer and economic base, plunging its future into doubt and uncertainty.

But Hawthorne residents "are not going to take this lying down. We're gearing up for a tough fight," said Tony Hughes, who with his brothers Gene and Ted, publish the community's 72-year old weekly newspaper, the Mineral County Independent-News.

The three brothers, Hughes said, were born and raised in Hawthorne, "and we are used to adversity," citing hard times that came about following the Korean and Vietnam wars when the base, which stores and reprocesses military munitions and ammunition, laid off workers.

"The world's not coming to an end. There's a chance the BRAC committee will decide not to shut us down after all. We have a strong local committee organized to fight the closure, and Gov. Guinn, Congressman Gibbons and Sen. Reid have vowed to help us retain the base," Hughes said.

Agreeing with Hughes that closure of the base, which employs about 500, would hurt the local economy, Mineral County Economic Development Executive Director Shelley Hartmann said Hawthorne will not be "down and out," even if the Army Depot is eventually shuttered.

"Things here have been looking up the past year or so. Our industrial park is growing, a new marble finishing factory is locating here, two developers are talking about building housing tracts in town, a boarding school for students has moved to Hawthorne and a civilian contractor named the High Desert Operations Center is training people here for employment in Iraq and Afghanistan," she said.

Several nearby mines are reopening, and their presence also is helping the community grow. Home sales and the price of real estate have jumped as well, she added.

"Empty lots that were going for $8,000 a few years ago are now selling for $18,000, and speculators have been snatching them up," Hartmann said. "Sure, closure of the base would affect us, but we'll survive and then continue to grow."

But despite Hartmann's optimism, there is no denying that the Army installation, which maintains nearly 3,000 storage buildings and half-buried storage bunkers on 147,000 acres surrounding the town, is by far the main engine which drives the community's and county's economy.

Pennsylvania-based Day and Zimmerman, the civilian firm which runs the installation for the Army, said it has an annual base payroll of $16.6 million, employs 488 people, and will purchase more than $3.2 million in goods in Mineral County this year.


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