Beaches, budgets and our National Guard

January 9, 2013

The Defense Department is planning to spend $58 million to rebuild and upgrade the historic Army National Guard training center at the small, oceanside resort town of Sea Girt, N.J. Five years ago, the state determined that the property was surplus.

Hurricane Sandy accelerated the upgrade process. Its water and wind damage allowed House-Senate conferees to put $24.2 million in an emergency supplemental appropriations bill. That bill is set for a vote Tuesday, and funds would be available as soon as President Obama signed it. The remaining $34 million for Sea Girt, included in the fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill, would be used for a new Regional Training Institute complex — with $20 million for barracks and $14 million for classrooms for Guard personnel.

Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), who represents the district, said when the bill was passed that the New Jersey National Guard tried for nearly a decade to get the $34 million and now “will finally see its hard work pay off.”

The need to reduce federal spending demands that we look closer at Defense programs such as the Sea Girt plans. The cost seems minuscule in the Pentagon $520 billion base budget, but it would be significant in those of most other federal agencies.

Sea Girt, a one-square-mile borough on the Atlantic Ocean, was — along with the Guard facility — once part of a seaside estate. The New Jersey legislature bought 120 acres of the estate in 1887 for the state’s National Guard as a summer training camp and mobilization area. The camp was first used to train Guardsmen for the Spanish-American War.

In the 1990s, because of its great location, the mansion, which once stood near the entrance gate of the Guard property, was the summer home of New Jersey governors.

When then-Gov. Jon Corzine (D) threatened in 2008 to sell or lease all or part of the 168-acre Guard facility to help pay the state’s debts, residents of Sea Girt — population 1,800 — objected. Then-Sea Girt Mayor Mark Clemmensen, a retired National Guard lieutenant colonel who was director of the Guard center from 2002 to 2006, told the New York Times, “The training center is as much a part of the fabric of the community in Sea Girt as is the Atlantic Ocean.”

It is and more.

“If you’re like most people and love to go to the beach, the National Guard training center in historic Sea Girt, New Jersey, is the place for you,” according to the U.S. Military Campgrounds and RV Parks Web site. “This beautiful 9-acre beachfront property is owned and operated by the National Guard. Enjoy fishing, swimming, beach parties and cookouts while basking in the summer sun.”

The Guard’s beach area is open year-round to military, retired military, employees of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, the state police (which use the center for firearms practice and other training and have an evidence lab there), local law enforcement agencies and the state Department of Corrections. All of them are property tenants.

From Memorial Day to the week after Labor Day, it is also open to holders of beach passes. New Jersey Guard members are issued five beach passes that they can distribute to family and friends, according to a 2006 Guard report. At peak season, 150 cars a day (at $5 each) is typical, with highest use on weekends. There are no user fees.

The Guard facility from Memorial Day weekend through Sept. 30 also offered, before Sandy, three cottages (one was destroyed in the storm) and nine recreational vehicle sites for weekly rental. New Jersey Guard members and spouses and the children of deployed Guard members have first priority, followed by retired New Jersey Guard personnel, others associated with the New Jersey Guard and, finally, active-duty military personnel.

The two remaining cottages, which in 2010 rented for $55 a night, have “TV with Cable, VCR or DVD, refrigerator, microwave, quilted spreads, pillows, telephones, coffee pots, dishes, stove, cookware and utensils,” according to a January 2010 information sheet. Outside each is a propane barbecue grill, a table and chairs, a shower and a deck area.

The RV sites rent for $25 or $30 a night, depending on size, have water, sewer and 30 amp electric hookups.

The National Guard facility also hosts summer and fall Monmouth County-Ocean County soccer camps and leagues, and it is the site of civilian events, including rock and band concerts.

Sandy flooded the south side of the Guard facility. Water in Stockton Lake rose three to four feet over a newly built $3 million breakwater. Foundations cracked, affecting the medical clinic, field maintenance shop and classrooms in a gymnasium, all of which date to World War II, said Jeffrey Sagnip, Smith’s spokesman.

The emergency $24.2 million in next week’s supplemental appropriations bill will pay for damage to those facilities, replace the roof of the Guard armory and provide new Internet communications and electrical generators.

Interestingly, the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services published a report in May saying the National Guard Bureau had postponed until fiscal 2015 the pursuit of funds to construct a new $16 milllion medical clinic at Sea Girt.

Smith said last month that the new training complex at Sea Girt would “allow soldiers in the years ahead to train in state-of-the-art facilities that meet their specific needs.” If funded, it also will allow the Guard and the local community to continue using the Sea Girt National Guard recreational facilities.

But why not put that complex at Fort Dix, some 38 miles away, which already handles 15,000 Guard and Reserve members on weekends and occupies 31,000 acres?

Of course there is no beach.

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