Next BRAC Should Be Smooth Sailing, Sub Commander Says
By Lee Howard
The Day
May 21, 2015
Groton — The commander of the Naval Submarine Base said Thursday during the annual Groton Business Update that he is bracing for another round of defense-base closures, though the Navy believes realignment will be more likely than shutdowns.
"I think we have a compelling case for staying open," said Capt. Carl Lahti, the sub base commander, during a meeting of about 100 people sponsored by the Groton Business Association at Groton Inn & Suites.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has said he supports the Pentagon's proposed 2017 renewal of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, though he believes U.S. naval strength has been right-sized to deal with current conditions. A decade ago, the commission proposed closing the Groton sub base before a local coalition led by the late John Markowicz managed, for a second time, to "Save Our Sub Base."
Lahti said he believes certain base functions could be moved around in the near future but the Navy is not expecting any base closures this time around — despite an estimate that up to 24 percent of current military functions could be eliminated next time around.
Lahti reported that the sub base has been spending millions of dollars to improve efficiencies, including energy-saving projects and improved electrical infrastructure. He noted that the sub base doesn't have as many potential flooding issues as Norfolk, Va., because "we own high ground."
Electric Boat is on a high as well, reported Larry A. Runkle, director of maintenance and modernization at EB, who noted that steady work through 2019 will give way to a period of significant growth thereafter with the ramping up of the Ohio-class submarine replacement program. Last year's $4.7 billion in sales is a big boost from EB's $3 billion in revenue just a few years earlier, he added.
"We have a very healthy outlook and future," Runkle said.
EB recently bought the old Caldor building on Kings Highway from Pfizer Inc., and plans to convert the space to fit its design and engineering force. Meanwhile, it has been taking down other structures, such as the old nuclear engineering building on Eastern Point Road.
One project seeing little forward momentum is the so-called Central Hall Block on West Main Street in Mystic. The building burned down 15 years ago, and Todd Brady, a local real estate investor who is managing partner of Factory Square Mystic, said the fact that the area has never been built up again is mute testimony to difficulties developers have had in getting anything through the labyrinthine planning and zoning process in Groton.
Brady suggested that combining planning and zoning into one commission might be one way to enhance the approval process. He also said the recent overhaul of the Historic District Commission was a positive step in seeing that projects move along more swiftly.
The previous commission had become too fixed on historic preservation, making the process of getting approvals onerous, Brady said.
"I saw people in tears at meetings," he said. "I saw people going up with their hands shaking."
Brady said he was hopeful that Jonathan Reiner, hired last year as director of planning and development in Groton, would be more flexible than previous officials in moving projects forward.
"We have to be progressive," he said. "We have to make this a place where people want to live."
Peter Legnos, president of LBI Industries, agreed, pointing out that small businesses are the lifeblood of new employment. Groton has a lot of potential, including land off Route 117 near the Mystic Marriott and the new airport development zone, but he said structural problems, such as having to pay for nine fire departments, are holding the town back.
"Do we really need all that?" he asked. "Do we really want to pay for that?"
Penny Parsekian, coordinator of the Thames River Heritage Park, is hoping the state pays to revive the water taxi that plied the Thames River for two weeks last September, a pilot project that she deemed a big success. The water taxi is intended to connect Fort Trumbull and the future U.S. Coast Guard Museum in New London with Fort Griswold and the Historic Ship Nautilus & Submarine Force Museum in Groton.
"It was an incredible draw for very little marketing," she said.
Parsekian said about 4,000 people boarded the water taxi over two consecutive weekends, and reported that sales tripled for several establishments nearby. She reported that the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection as well as the southeastern Connecticut legislative delegation are behind the project and that a new nonprofit is being created to support the project.
"We have the attractions we need to make this extraordinary," Parsekian said.