Tom Watson of Vallejo said his life changed forever when the Mare Island Naval Shipyard closed — 20 years ago today, April 1, 1996.
"I lost my job, all my friends and my house, with the subsequent housing market crash. I ended up in the Priority Placement Program, getting a job with the U.S. Army as a Public Works electrician in Washington state," remembers Watson, who worked on submarines at the shipyard after leaving the Navy in 1973 after serving on the USS Guitarro. "It broke up my family. My son wouldn't come. He stayed in Vacaville. It was pretty much a nightmare."
Age 45 in 1996, Watson said the base closure, which he blames on the end of the Cold War and California's political climate at the time, was ultimately responsible for how hard this area was hit by the foreclosure crisis as well as for the 2008 bankruptcy.
"They devastated the entire area's economy," he said.
Longtime Vallejo businessman Buck Kamphausen said the closure's timing was terrible.
"I knew the base was outdated maybe 10 years before they closed it," he said. "If they'd closed it then, we'd have gotten a better deal. We were in more of an economic upswing then."
He said he recalled everyone being "on pins and needles" waiting for the announcement. Would the shipyard be on the list of military installations to close, or would it be spared?
Looking back, Watson said the closure probably shouldn't have come as such a surprise, but the shipyard's very age made it feel eternal in some way.
"We couldn't believe we would be closed," Watson said. "We thought we were the No. 1 shipyard in the country. That's what the Navy was telling us. We thought we had a job for life — even though the old-timers were saying there were rumors the base would close, we didn't believe it."
Watson said his first reaction to the news was to push back.
"Immediately, what I wanted to do was fight back," he said. "To see what we could do to save our jobs and our lifestyles."
They tried several lines of attack, including creating an employee-owned business to use some of the island's buildings, all of which came up short.
Raymond Prather, owner of the Victory Stores on Virginia Street in downtown Vallejo, was working at the store founded in 1946 by his grandfather when the shipyard closed.
"I was 20 at the time, and I didn't get the significance of the closure until I took over the store in 2000," he said. "I remember my father and grandfather talking about it. I remember the news listing all the bases that were closing and Mare Island was on it. I remember my dad said it's going to be really tough for Vallejo. They were really upset about it. They got a lot of their business from the island. My father had to take a pay cut maybe two years after that. But, we survived."
Serving as mayor at the time, Tony Intintoli said the closure announcement, when it came, wasn't a shock, "because we had been working to try to keep it open for two or three years, though when it first became clear that it was being considered for closure, most people were surprised.
"The collapse of the Soviet Union was a shock and the question of the future of the military was in the back of many people's minds," he said. "There were hearings and meetings."
Intintoli described the decision to close the Naval facility as "a great blow."
"The studies we had done showed the economic impact of a closure would be devastating to the region — it was something like $500 million out of the economy annually, and the dislocation of families," he said. "The shock, I think, was probably in part because Mare Island wasn't just part of the city. We were a Navy town for more than 100 years. Our identity was tied to the base and many families had several generations whose livelihood was attached to the island. It was a terrific blow; emotionally, economically, a very hard time for the city."
The closure's aftermath "pretty much" followed the expected course, Intintoli said.
"There was a loss of population, which ultimately was reversed, as people occupied the homes that were sold," he said. "The Navy was energetic about finding new positions for people working at the base, but the jobs weren't in Vallejo because the Navy was leaving the entire Bay Area."
Recovery has been an uphill climb, most agree, and it's not complete.
"I don't know if the city is recovered. I haven't seen real proof of anything happening," Kamphausen said. "I think there's great spirit among the people here. I think Lennar (Mare Island) has gotten some good tenants, (and generated) more than 2,000 jobs over there. Touro has been a tremendous addition. CMA (California State University Maritime Academy) is great. Our partnership with Solano Community College, for the automotive classes, is good. You see some commercial building going on. We're getting the artists into downtown. They aren't a huge economic driver, but there's a demand for housing because of the high price of housing in the rest of the Bay Area. And if we built apartments above some of the downtown buildings I think they would fill instantly. We've got now two breweries in town. Possibly a distillery going in on Mare Island. There has been some recovery but there's still a way to go."
Vallejo Navel & Historical Museum Executive Director Jim Kern said he also remembers the base closure.
"Of course, almost everyone was opposed to it," he said. "For Vallejoans, closing of a military base wasn't an abstract concept that they read about in the newspaper. It was a very real thing, because it affected your job, your spouse's job, or your neighbor's job. And people were upset because in some cases generations of the same family had worked at the Shipyard. But to the credit of Vallejoans, once the decision was final, the people displayed their typical 'can-do' attitude, coming up with a very thorough reuse plan for the base.
At the time, almost no one said publicly that there was anything positive about closing the base, Kern said.
"In private I remember some people saying that it might be good for Vallejo in the long run, because we wouldn't be tied economically to a single industry anymore, he said. "I think that most people would agree that, after 20 years, Vallejo still hasn't recovered economically. Although the closing of the Shipyard is just one factor in that."
How well Vallejo has recovered, or is recovering, 20 years on, is a matter of opinion.
"The promise of economic redevelopment is a slow process, mostly because of the environmental cleanup that's needed, with all the toxic waste the Navy left over the years," Watson said. "But you know what? We got hope. Maybe we can all get together and make the city better. We lost hope in 1996 and hopefully we'll get it back in 2016."
Kern said that while one rationale for closing Mare Island was the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Empire, he doubts "most people could have envisioned how much the world has changed in the past 20 years, and the new types of threats that we face. There will always be new threats, and the accompanying need for a strong national defense."
Judging from his own store, Prather said things are vastly improved.
"My store survived and we had the best year I've ever had last year," he said. "I definitely bounced back, but it took some years. If you look at the downtown as a whole, it was a ghost town on Sundays for years. It's not like that now. I open on Sundays now. We have a parking problem down here, now."
Prather said he thinks the whole city is improving.
"Five or six years ago I didn't think it would bounce back like this," he said. "I think being on the water, Vallejo is one of the best priced communities anywhere, and people are coming from the city, from out of town. There's the artist community. You stand out in front of my store, and you see people walking along with their dogs. People are discovering Vallejo is a really nice community. We're friends. The sense of community down here has really grown. I think everyone discovering Vallejo is actually a pretty good city, near the water, the best bang for your buck, and brought a lot of new people down here, willing to give the city a chance."
Studies done in advance of the closure, of the base reuse, projected a 30-year recovery and this is the 20th year, Intintoli noted.
"There's been significant progress especially the northern part of the island," he said. "A significant number of employees are working on the island; I think there are thousands of jobs out there now. Touro has done a great job; Blue Homes is out there.
"When the base closed we had about 6,000 people working out there and there are thousands out there again now, and there are promising proposals for the north end of the island," he added.
But, while the economic hole left by the Navy is slowly but steadily filling with other things, there are other deep wounds the city is finding even more difficult to recover from, Intintoli said.
"We're about where we expected to be at this time (in the economic recovery process), he said. "The emotional impact of the base closure, I think, is still with us. It will take time."