As the U.S. Coast Guard approaches its birthday, its Baltimore yard looks hopefully toward a major renovation.
The Coast Guard’s only major repair yard has called Baltimore’s Curtis Bay home since 1899, over half the age of that branch of service. But, as the Coast Guard prepares for its 232nd birthday on Aug. 4, its fleet of mostly half-century-old ships is serviced by even older facilities at Curtis Bay.
A new bill, which could inject $632 million into base upgrades, could change that. It is thought to be the largest funding effort toward a single Coast Guard site in the branch’s history.
Right now the yard services a wide range of Coast Guard craft, everything from 87-foot long Marine Protectors, to 225-foot seagoing buoy tenders.
The potential new funding is expected to pay for a $400 million dry dock, and $232 million for wharf improvements, a boat lift, dredging, environmental mitigation, new shop facilities and other upgrades.
Kristen Soper, the yard’s communication’s director, and Commander Johnny Lisko, the yard’s facilities engineer, believe the funding might make the yard viable for another 123 years.
“The senators introducing this bill was monumental,” Soper said. “It would give us the ability to service and maintain the newly built offshore patrol cutters, and the national security cutters.”
Maryland U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin announced the introduction of the $623 million Service to Fleet Act at the end of June. They hope it will become part of this year’s Coast Guard Authorization Act. The funding is not a done deal, but Van Hollen recently told the Fishbowl he is optimistic.
“I’m confident that we will get this over the finish line,” Van Hollen said. “The reason is the need is clear to everybody. We need a modernized Coast Guard for our national security. This would be a major upgrade for the facilities at the yard. It needs to be brought into the 21st century.”
The heart of the Baltimore yard’s current work has to do with servicing Coast Guard ships along with vessels from other federal agencies. As the Coast Guard updates some of its fleet with newer offshore patrol and national security cutters, the capability of the yard to maintain them might be called into question in the future. Alleviating that through facility upgrades may also offer job security to yard workers.
“It gives the Coast Guard yard workers stability going forward because we would be able to service the modernized fleet,” Soper said. “That’s a concern right now.”
Currently, the yard finds itself regularly servicing Coast Guard ships first launched in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. That has had at least one positive effect though. Many of the 680 military and civilian workers there have become experts at their work.
“When you think Coast Guard, you think jumping out of airplanes and diving through the water,” Lisko said. “But this place is just as Coast Guard-centric. There’s a lot of passion. There’s folks here who have had parents and grandparents working here.”
Most of the base’s workers live within 10 miles of Curtis Bay, Soper said. The highly-skilled, union trade jobs have often been a family affair over the years. Soper said many interns have come right out of high school and worked their way up to high-paying positions which allowed them to buy their first home or car.
And two of the longest-serving members of the civilian Coast Guard work force once called the yard their place of employment. And yet the yard and it’s accompanying 13 base commands seems to be a bit of a mystery to many in Baltimore.
“It’s pretty embedded in the community,” Soper said. “The farther away from the yard that you get it seems like it’s perhaps not very well known.”
With 680 yard workers and over 2,200 employees at the base in all, the Curtis Bay location is an economic force to be reckoned with in Baltimore. Last year the Coast Guard reported over $393 million in procurement and purchases at Curtis Bay and over $870 million in stored spare parts.
“It’s not only key to our national security,” Van Hollen said, “but it’s also an essential part of the economic heartbeat of the Baltimore region. This modernization will not only ensure that these jobs are there into the future, but it is expected to increase jobs at the site by at least hundreds of people. This is a big deal for the Baltimore regional economy.”
The Service to Fleet Act is going back to the Senate’s Commerce Committee, where it will be decided if the act will be included in the overarching Coast Guard Authorization Act. One way or the other, Van Hollen is bullish on making the funding happen.
“The exact route of the bill through Congress is something we will be working on in the coming weeks and months,” he said.
For those involved with and advocating for the Coast Guard yard’s future, it’s full steam ahead on the new funding, and the sooner the better.
“Simply stated, you can have a great vessel, but if it’s not operational then you’re not out patrolling,” Soper said. “They’re not stopping bad guys.”