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Building Boom on the Bases

Photo by Alison St John / KPBS

Above: One of 40 new barracks buildings under construction on Camp Pendleton -- part of a $5 billion federal investment in military infrastructure in San Diego County.


There’s an unprecedented construction boom going on in San Diego. It’s on the region’s military bases: Camp Pendleton in North County and the Naval facilities around San Diego Bay.

— There’s an unprecedented construction boom going on in San Diego. It’s on the region’s military bases: Camp Pendleton in North County and the Naval facilities around San Diego Bay.

KPBS reporter Alison St John says a major initiative to expand and upgrade the bases comes at an opportune time for San Diego’s economy.

Cranes are swinging window awnings into place, and workmen are putting final touches to one of 40 new barracks buildings going up on Camp Pendleton. It will house 600 Marines, with a 27,000 square-foot dining room.

The officer overall in charge of construction on the base is Lieutenant Commander Scott King. Standing in the doorway of the spacious new activity room, he lists the amenities the Marine facility will have.

“When this is complete,” he says, “it will be furnished with pool tables, wide screen TVs, video gaming centers, learning facilities, a laundry facility and a duty room.”

King says there’s $700 million worth of construction underway on base, with another $900 million coming soon. As part of what’s known as the “Grow the Force Initiative,” King says Camp Pendleton will see about 4,000 new Marines added to the existing force of almost 40,000.

“It’s not just the new Marines that are coming,” he says, “it’s trying to upgrade the quality of life of life for everybody base-wide. Whether it be training facilities, office facilities, roads, or utilities, we’re essentially turning Camp Pendleton into an entire construction site.”

Over the next five to seven years, King expects to spend $5 billion on new construction around the Marine base.

The Marines are not the only ones who will see better barracks and upgraded facilities.

Captain Steve Wirsching is commander of Naval Facilities Engineering, NAVFAC, based in downtown San Diego. He has orders to do an unprecedented amount of new building and renovations all over the Southwest region, which includes California, Nevada and Arizona.

“In the next two years, we anticipate doing over $5 billion worth of construction.” Wirsching says. Seventy-five percent of that money, will be spent in San Diego County.

The federal stimulus package adds over $700 million more for construction in San Diego. Military construction in this county accounts for about a tenth of all defense stimulus dollars nationwide. That’s many times more than the city and county will get.

Wirsching says Federal regulations require San Diego companies to compete with companies from around the country for these contracts.

“The Federal Acquisition Regulations don’t allow us to restrict based on location,” he says, “ but historically, a lot of San Diego companies do business with NAVFAC.”

Two San Diego construction companies have recently won contracts for under a million dollars each to refurbish bachelors’ quarters at the Naval base.

Back up on Camp Pendleton, Lieutenant Commander Scott King says he’s employing almost ten times as many construction workers as usual.

“Typically” he says, “we employ 1,000 to 1,500 individual laborers, and that’s quickly going to rise on any given day to 10,000 workers on Camp Pendleton.”

The contract for this particular barracks building is Harper Construction, a firm based in downtown San Diego. Brad Humphrey of Harper says the competition to get jobs on the base is fierce, because of the dearth of other construction work.

“It’s amazingly slow, this is an unprecedented time” Humphrey says, “We have resumes three inches deep from people who want to work here, and subcontractors.Our phones are ringing off the hook.”

However, San Diego’s Building Industry Association says most of their members have not benefited from the building boom on bases. That’s because those construction companies don’t pay the prevailing wages required in federal contracts.

San Diego economist Marney Cox says the region has suffered in the past from the boom/bust cycle of military spending. But he says, the building bonanza is well timed. “It comes along at a time when we have high unemployment in the construction industry, so that’s a very good counter-cyclical boost to the San Diego economy.”

Cox says this military spending spree will inevitably come to an end, but by the time it does, the economy should have improved. He believes San Diego’s economy has diversified enough that it will pick up the slack.

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