Residents of this breezy, palm-studded city on the Gulf of Mexico may not be ready to die for a new Navy port. But they are willing to pay more taxes.
By a staggering 3-to-1 ratio, voters here approved a $25 million bond issue this spring -- knowing that it would cost a typical homeowner $22 a year in taxes -- to sweeten the city's bid to become home port for a Navy battleship surface action group.
"The Navy said it wants to be wanted," Loyd Neal, head of Chamber of Commerce committee that organized the bond campaign, said. "I don't know of a better way to show we want them than to have the voters put their money on the table."
Battleship-chasing -- like its private-sector cousin, smokestack chasing -- has been a civic preoccupation all along the Gulf Coast this year as cities duel -- incentive for incentive, rally for rally -- in quest of the economic lift of a major military installation.
"People seem to be much more aware, as the economy goes through basic changes, that if their cities are going to survive, they've got to compete," chamber executive vice president Jimmy Lyles said. "Industry knows it, too. So does the Navy. Instead of making location decisions the old way, which was in secret, they're going public at the outset and encouraging bidding wars."
That is precisely where Corpus Christi finds itself. It is going head-to-head with five cities: Pensacola, Fla.; Mobile, Ala.; Pascagoula, Miss.; Lake Charles, La., and Houston-Galveston, Tex. At stake is a $60 million payroll, six-ship port. The Navy is expected to announce the winner within a month.
The competition has been a bonanza for the Navy. "We are loved all across the Gulf," said Chase G. Untermeyer, the Navy's assistant secretary for manpower. "The evaluation teams were received as if they were war heroes."
Corpus Christi certainly did not stint. A local newspaper sponsored an essay contest ("I want a home port because . . . "); a local disc jockey produced a pop single, "Home Port" ("We know Rickover didn't take no kickbacks," went one line); bright blue bumper stickers ("South Texas Is Navy Country") were plastered on everthing that moved, and the chamber distributed posters of a battleship for windows and yards along the evaluation team's route.
"The only hitch was that some people didn't display their posters because they had them at the shop, getting framed," said Lyles, beaming at the mischief.
The courtship was no put-on. Corpus Christi has been home to a naval air station since 1943. The Navy, in turn, leases part of its base to the Army, which operates a helicopter maintenance facility that is the biggest employer in this city. "You could say we've got a love affair with the military here," Mayor Luther Jones, a retired Army colonel, said.
But it will take more than good vibes to lure the USS Wisconsin. In addition to the $25 million in local bond money to acquire a site and build shore facilities, Texas has pledged $25 million. "We're talking about cutting the Navy's move-in cost by half," Neal said.
The other finalists, needless to day, are not about to let Texas sashay off with the prize. Louisiana Gov. Edwin W. Edwards has pledged to spend "whatever it takes" to bring the Navy to Lake Charles and has spoken of a package of cash and land valued at $90 million. Florida and Pensacola say they will pay dredging costs; Mississippi and Alabama will build roads and provide other incentives.
In frenzy if not in scale, the bidding war resembles this year's scramble among 24 states for a new GM Saturn plant. That competition has featured seven governors appearing on the Phil Donahue show to pitch their wares and has seen one state, Minnesota, put together a tax-abatement package valued at more than $1 billion.
Are cities and states giving away the store?
"There is always a danger of that," U.S. Conference of Mayors director John Gunther said. "But by and large, I'd say economic development at the local level has become much more sophisticated in the past five years. It used to be more of a boosterish thing. Now cities are making careful calculations of costs and benefits."
In Corpus Christi, the bond-campaign sponsors were frank about the cost in taxes, but they also told voters that there would be a payback to the local tax base within eight years. The bond issue passed with a majority this city had not seen in 30 years.
The Navy has conducted home-port competitions in other regions, having decided, for political and strategic reasons, to disperse its fleet, which is soon to number 600 ships. It has not always found the locals so gung-ho.
On the West Coast, a carrier battle group is to be based in Everett, Wash., rather than nearby Seattle, in part because Seattle residents were cool to the idea. On the East Coast, Staten Island is to get a battleship group despite concerns voiced by some New York City elected officials about the nuclear weapons on board.
Corpus Christi has no such qualms. Its only concern is that it is one day farther by sea from the Yucatan Channel -- gateway to Central and South America -- than some of the other contenders. That is a drawback, according to the Navy, but not a fatal one.
"We've turned every rock over three times," Neal said. "The only thing we haven't been able to do is move ourselves 400 miles out into the Gulf."