Originally created 04/11/98

City OK without big base



CHARLESTON, S.C. -- How many Charlestonians does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Two dozen. One to replace the bulb and 23 to talk about how great the old bulb was.

That joke pretty much sums up the way change is viewed in the 300-year-old port city, which places a premium on preserving its past.

And it helps explain the uproar here when word came from Washington five years ago that Charleston might be about to lose its Navy base -- the third-largest home port in the United States.

"It wasn't just the prospect of losing the jobs," recalls Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley Jr. "It was the great affection that this community had for the Navy."

The mayor, among the gloomiest of the doomsayers back then, understates matters when he describes "great concern" felt locally after the Base Closure and Realignment Commission voted in June 1993 to close the Charleston naval complex.

Sensing an impending economic catastrophe, panicked city leaders mounted a million-dollar lobbying push to keep the base open.

It was the fiercest resistance to the federal government in these parts since the opening shots of the Civil War were fired across Charleston Harbor, and, ultimately, as unsuccessful.

Today, as Defense Secretary William Cohen is proposing two more rounds of base closures, he is citing Charleston as a guiding example, not of resistance, but of the blessings that can come from military downsizing.

"To be honest," says Ben Cole, president of the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, "a lot of people around here would say the closing of the base was the best thing that ever happened."

It certainly didn't look that way a few years ago.

Of all the cities picked in the 1993 round of base closures, Charleston was hit hardest.

Though employment at the "gravy yard" had been declining for years, Charleston still depended on the federal government for one-third of its economy. A total of 22,000 jobs would be lost when the base closed, a major part of the work force in a region of 525,000 people.

But unemployment barely rose at all, and today is about 3 percent, well below the national average.

In part, Charleston exported its job losses. When the Navy shipped out for good two years ago, many workers from the base retired or moved away. By some estimates, the area lost almost 50,000 people.

While the shutdown cost Charleston many skilled workers, it provided benefits for area businesses, which had struggled to compete with the higher wages paid by the federal government.

South Carolina has one of the least unionized work forces, a selling point for foreign investment.

Until the base closed, Charleston had been largely left out of those recruitment efforts. Out of necessity, the private-public Regional Development Alliance was formed in 1995 to do something Charleston had never really tried: seek out companies to move to the area.

The result: About 65 new businesses, representing $1.7 billion in private investment and 7,100 jobs, have located in the area. They include a new steel mini-mill, expansion of a chemical plant and several phone reservation centers.