City would lose aid, gain land if Guard unit closes


Havre de Grace officials see the makings of good news and bad news in the potential closing of the National Guard unit based in the city.

While the city would lose a valuable source of assistance when municipal services are stretched by emergencies, the Guard unit's armory and grounds -- about 90 acres -- would become available for industrial development and tax dollars if the unit is shut down as seems likely.

"That's a lot of prime industrial land," said city planner Stanley Ruchlewicz. "From that standpoint, there is some potential good. But we'll miss them for the extra things they do for us."

The unit -- the 1729th Maintenance Company -- is one of 830 National Guard operations around the country slated to be shut down over the next six years as part of a $20 billion Department of Defense savings plan.

Some state, county and city officials shudder at the thought of the Guard unit being shut down as a result of proposed federal defense cutbacks.

"[The unit] is an unbelieveable resource," said John Van Gilder, a sergeant with the city police department. "You won't notice the void until you need it."

Van Gilder recalls how the National Guard transported police officers to their stations when a severe winter storm made roads impassable for many vehicles a few years ago.

Guardsmen also have trained firefighters to handle accidents involving airplanes and helicopters, Van Gilder said.

The Guard unit once provided a crane to recover a car that crashed into a lake at a city park, he said.

In addition, the Guard maintains a city-owned heliport behind the armory off Old Bay Lane, used when people must be flown to hospitals in medical emergencies.

While the county stands to lose important Guard services, money also is at stake.

The cutbacks in Harford County would mean the loss of at least $3.97 million in federal money annually that goes toward Guardsmen's salaries, state estimates show.

Organized in 1971, the Havre de Grace unit has about 150 full- and part-time men and women in its ranks. The unit -- the eighth largest employer in the city -- maintains and repairs tanks, small arms and weapons systems, food service equipment, generators and communications equipment.

The company is one three Maryland units targeted for closing. The others are in Parkville and Crisfield. Maryland stands to lose about 1,555 jobs under the proposal.

Congress has not acted on the proposal, but some military and government officials say the writing is on the wall. Call it the price of peace.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer earlier this month urged Marylanders to write or call congressional representatives to support keeping the three Guard units. The governor voiced support for a plan to reduce the Guard's programs by about 12 percent nationwide, as opposed to the 22 percent reduction plan now on the table.

Meanwhile, Havre de Grace civic and elected leaders have met with federal officials, including Sen. Barbara Mikulski, to voice concern over the plan to close the city's Guard unit, Councilman Joseph Kochenderfer said.

"We certainly value that installation, and would like to see it continued," Kochenderfer said. "Any time you lose an organization like that would be a negative."

However, Kochenderfer said the county may have to accept the unit's closing as the nation's defense needs shrink with the ending of the Cold War.

"It's part of the overall picture, and this is the part where we must take a hit," he said.

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