At the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum on Tuesday, amid models of aircraft that have been milestones in Navy aviation, U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) led a rally-like assessment of efforts to protect Southern Maryland's biggest military installation from the upcoming Pentagon base closing process.
More than 200 community, government and business leaders listened as Hoyer urged them to keep up what they have largely been doing for the past two years: working together to secure the future of the Patuxent River Naval Air Station.
"Community support is a critical part of decision making, and . . . our community is perceived as a strong supporter of the Navy," he said. "We can't take for granted what we have here today."
Well-represented at Tuesday's meeting were: the Patuxent Partnership, a consortium of more than 250 companies and other entities involved in technology-led business development; the Navy Alliance, an organization of defense contractors and others who support the base; and the St. Mary's County Chamber of Commerce.
Urging community groups to "band together," Hoyer said Pax River may be at risk because of its strength.
"We're so strong, people think they can take component parts from us [and move them elsewhere]," he said. Hoyer suggested that the Base Realignment and Closure process could mean a loss of individual programs rather than a closure of the entire base.
St. Mary's County is "the envy of most of America," with an unemployment rate of only 2.4 percent in May, he said.
Plans to build additional county schools and to demolish Lexington Manor -- the rundown "Flattops" neighborhood that lies under protected air space near the base -- have further strengthened Pax River and demonstrated a community that is eager to embrace the Navy, Hoyer said.
St. Mary's County commissioners, who arrived at the session after their weekly meeting, announced that the funds are in place to pay for the demolition of Lexington Manor and to relocate residents to new low-income housing.
"With $5 million of local money and $7.5 million from the state, we will purchase all 84 acres and demolish all but two [houses]," said commissioners President Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large).
Within several days, county officials expect to identify several new school sites.
"The last new school we opened was in 1990, 14 years ago," McKay said. "We need two more."
It remains possible that the base closing review may be delayed. Hoyer and a majority of House members recently voted to delay the process in light of changing political and military requirements around the world, including operations in Iraq and the war on terrorism.
"We aren't sure what we are going to need 12 months from now," Hoyer said, which makes it difficult to decide today what Navy facilities will be essential.
However, he told the gathering, any delay is unlikely.
The key is to keep St. Mary's County growing and operating efficiently as the Navy decides where it wants to be.
"If you're not growing," he said, "you're going."