WALDORF -- Still savoring the expected influx of 7,600 jobs produced by military base closings and consolidations, Southern Maryland business officials were warned yesterday of the possibility of major job losses next year.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Democrat who represents Southern Maryland, and senior Navy officials said there is pressure from the Air Force to move the flight-testing and evaluation of Navy aircraft from the Patuxent River Naval Air Station near here to Edwards Air Force Base in California. Such a decision would probably mean the loss of thousands of jobs in the area.
Mr. Hoyer told more than 300 people at a conference sponsored by the Tri-County Council of Southern Maryland that declining Pentagon budgets could make the third round of base closures -- scheduled for next year -- "the toughest yet."
Rear Adm. Donald V. Boecker, vice commander of the Naval Air Systems Command, said the Air Force wants "to take over and move all testing of military aircraft [out] West."
Air Force officials could not be reached on the federal holiday yesterday.
More than 9,300 people -- civilian, military and independent contractors -- work at Patuxent, the biggest of the region's Navy installations. Overall, 24,000 Navy jobs, representing $1.7 billion in annual spending, are situated in Southern Maryland counties and neighboring Virginia. About 8,300 of these jobs are in Dahlgren, Va., across the Potomac River from St. Mary's County.
Officials, seeking to play down the threat to Patuxent, would not say how many jobs would be jeopardized if the Air Force gets its way. Mr. Hoyer and Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who also spoke at the conference, said they were sure that Patuxent would survive. But Mr. Hoyer warned that "what we are going to see as we downsize is multiservice use of facilities."
Admiral Boecker said he did not think that Patuxent would be on the list of proposed base closings next year. But, he added, "it could be."
Officials said a committee of senior military officers representing all three services is studying the possible consolidation of aircraft testing. Their recommendations will go to the senior Defense Department leadership, which will send its own recommendations to the next base closure and realignment commission in 1995.
In the 1991 and 1993 rounds of base closings, Southern Maryland picked up 7,600 jobs that were moved here from
around the country after other bases were closed and reduced in size. But the area lost 1,000 jobs to Charleston, S.C.
Mr. Hoyer and Admiral Boecker said Virginia interests are fighting a rear-guard action to keep 11,000 Navy jobs scheduled to move from Arlington, including nearly 2,700 jobs that are to shift to Patuxent. But Admiral Boecker said he hopes that construction of a $70 million building to house those workers at Patuxent can begin by January.
"It is important to put a stake in the ground and start construction," to solidify the move of the jobs to Southern Maryland, Admiral Boecker said.
Rear Adm. Barton D. Strong, commander of the Naval Air Warfare Center at Patuxent, spoke of an additional $120 million in construction at the base that would be needed to accommodate incoming jobs.
Military and political officials made it clear yesterday that they are lobbying hard on Capitol Hill and at the Pentagon to preserve the Southern Maryland facilities.
Mr. Hoyer warned of the political power of the largest-in-the-nation California delegation, which can be counted on to push the move to Edwards. California has 53 House seats; Maryland has eight. "The 53 are going to prevail if we are not on top of it," Mr. Hoyer said.
"The public wants a streamlined government, and they are going to get it," he said. "There are many battles ahead."
California, already hit hard by the recession, lost thousands of jobs in the 1993 round of base closures, putting pressure on Clinton administration officials to help that state in the next round.
For Mr. Hoyer, the political stakes are high. Redistricted into Southern Maryland in 1992, he lost in St. Mary's, Charles and Calvert counties and needed a big victory in Prince George's County to hang on to his seat. The congressman has been working hard to increase his support in the three southern counties and has won praise for his efforts to save jobs during the base closings. A major loss of jobs in the next round, which will follow the November election, could diminish the stature he is working hard to achieve.