EVERETT — This time next year, people in Everett can expect a send-off for the USS Abraham Lincoln and a welcome party for the USS Nimitz.
The Nimitz will replace the Lincoln as the aircraft carrier based at Naval Station Everett, the Navy announced Thursday.
For years, rumors have been swirling about the departure of the Lincoln from Everett. City leaders worried about a major hit to the regional economy and what, if anything, would replace the Lincoln. Now they know.
“I am just ecstatic. This is absolutely wonderful news,” Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson said. “I think Everett got its Christmas present early this year, and for me it's the best present I've ever gotten. Now we just need the Air Force tanker.”
The Lincoln is scheduled to head to Virginia at the end of next year for a midlife refueling of its two nuclear reactors. The refueling job is set to start in 2012 and is scheduled to be complete in 2016. The Lincoln currently is serving in the waters off the Middle East and is expected to return in the spring. When it next departs, it could be sailing to Hampton Roads, Va.
Whether the Lincoln will return to Everett after the overhaul remains unclear. Stephanson said he plans to campaign for the Lincoln to return to Everett, to join the Nimitz.
With some work, the base pier could accommodate both carriers, Stephanson said.
“I'm going to be advocating for two aircraft carriers in Everett,” he said. “We would welcome both of them.”
Where the Lincoln will be
stationed in the future rests with Navy leadership, said Everett Naval Station's public affairs officer Kristin Ching. “And nobody is talking about having more than one carrier stationed in Everett.”
For most of 2011, the Nimitz is scheduled for a year-long maintenance job at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton. The carrier arrived at the shipyard Thursday. Bremerton is the home port for the USS John C. Stennis.
When Naval Station Everett was under construction in the early 1990s, the original plan was to make the Nimitz the centerpiece of the base.
The first in its class of 10 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, the Nimitz was commissioned in 1975. The carrier called Bremerton home from 1987 to 1997. After the Nimitz underwent its midlife refueling from 1998 to 2001, it was moved in November 2001 to San Diego.
Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said the decision to base the Nimitz in Everett followed a lengthy analysis and review. The Navy's move ensures long-term strategic dispersal of aircraft carriers on the West Coast and saves the Navy more than $100 million, he said.
“Many factors were considered here, including the quality of life for our sailors and their families, and the considerable cost savings to the American taxpayers,” said Mabus in a press release from the Navy. “Maintaining a carrier in Everett will ensure … operational readiness of our fleet, which is critical to our national security.”
The $100 million savings comes from the shorter moving distance for sailors between Bremerton and Everett as well as cheaper housing in Everett than in San Diego, said Navy Cmdr. Pauline Storum, a public affairs officer in San Diego.
Besides its strategic location, Everett offers a nice location for Navy families, Storum said. Commuting time to the Everett base is a relatively short drive from housing in Lake Stevens and Arlington.
“The sailors should be able to spend more quality time with their families, and you can't put a price on that,” Storum said.
Elected officials had worked for years to get the Pentagon to commit to keeping Naval Station Everett busy.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Rick Larsen, both Washington Democrats, sent letters earlier this year to the Secretary of the Navy and the chief of Naval Operations, urging them to send another aircraft carrier to Naval Station Everett after the Lincoln leaves for refueling. The letters stressed the strategic military advantages of docking a carrier in Everett.
With an annual payroll of $230 million, Naval Station Everett is Snohomish County's second-largest employer. City, county and state officials earlier were concerned that should the Lincoln not have a replacement, half the personnel at the base — about 3,000 sailors and their paychecks — would leave, too.
Stephanson said the loss of the Lincoln would have drained the region of more than $100 million in military payroll.
In San Diego, the news about the Nimitz had people wondering about the loss to their economy. Navy public affairs spokesmen told the San Diego Union-Tribune that the Nimitz has a $203 million annual payroll. U.S. Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., told the newspaper that the Navy expects another carrier back in San Diego by 2016.
Nimitz crewmembers who opted not to move family members during the maintenance period in Bremerton have the opportunity to move eligible family members from San Diego to Everett after completion of the carrier's maintenance. Some families already are resettled in Bremerton.
“The support we provide for the USS Abraham Lincoln is identical to the support we will provide the crew of the USS Nimitz,” Ching said. “We will work with both ships through our Fleet and Family Support programs to ensure a smooth transition for the sailors and their families.”
For many, the Lincoln's departure next year will be difficult.
The aircraft carrier has become synonymous with the city of Everett. And it's not just the Silvertips mascot, Lincoln the bear, whose hockey jersey number is “72,” the ship's hull number.
The community support when the Lincoln returned home in the early part of war in Iraq cemented its place here, said Everett's executive director for governmental affairs Pat McClain.
National news broadcaster Tom Brokaw called the homecoming crowd of 30,000 people the biggest welcome of its kind since World War II, McClain said.
Lawmakers' work pays off
The person least surprised by Thursday's announcement may have been Democratic U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks of Bremerton.
That's because he predicted this outcome on June 28, 2009. In a press release, he wrote that “the Navy will base the carrier in Everett” as the Lincoln's replacement after spending a year in Bremerton for maintenance.
Dicks considered it the most logical outcome, though he realized the Navy leadership had not finished the analysis that would lead to the same conclusion, said George Behan, Dicks' chief of staff.
At the time, Larsen, Murray and Everett community leaders welcomed Dicks' bravado and hoped he'd be right.
The legislators started making their case in earnest in 2009 as Murray met in February with Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of Naval Operations, about a replacement carrier.
She spoke with him again last June and then she and Larsen sent letters to Roughead and Navy Secretary Mabus in August and October.
A few days ago, Larsen phoned Undersecretary of the Navy Robert Work to discuss the carrier situation while Murray again called Roughead.
Pentagon officials can't ignore the three lawmakers given their prominent defense-related roles in Congress.
“It is not an insignificant delegation for the Navy,” Behan said. “The Navy pays attention to us. Ultimately this is the Navy making a decision for everyone. This is the right decision for the Navy.”
Strong support a factor
Elected officials were happy about the Nimitz announcement.
Congressman Larsen said having a carrier at Everett is vital not only to the local economy, but it's the right move for national security.
“This is great news for our community, for the marine industry and people who have jobs as a result of the Navy,” Larsen said. “I'm excited for Everett, I'm excited for Snohomish County, I'm excited for the families and the sailors of the Nimitz.”
Murray said one of the reasons Mabus gave for his decision is that Everett offers strong support for the naval base and its sailors.
“We needed some good news for Everett,” Murray said. “We are so glad that the sailors on the Nimitz will have a good home in Snohomish County. Naval Station Everett has been a great home for the Lincoln, and I know the Nimitz is going to receive a warm welcome.”
Murray said she and Mabus did not talk about the future of the Lincoln past its refueling date.
The Navy constructed a base in Everett to support a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier because Port Gardner is a deepwater port that doesn't need to be dredged and because it has quick access to the Pacific Ocean, Larsen said. Everett is one of the leading Navy bases in the country in terms of its smaller environmental footprint, its strategic location and its quality of life.
Mayor Stephanson said his visit to the Pentagon in April paid off.
“Admiral Gary Roughhead promised a decision by the end of the year and, by God, he got it done,” Stephanson said.
Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring said he was elated by Thursday's announcement.
“This is huge for us,” he said. “The Navy is an important part of our economy and fabric of the whole community.”
School leaders fearing enrollment hits when the Lincoln leaves were breathing easier, too.
“I'm totally elated,” said Lakewood School District Superintendent Dennis Haddock. Children of sailors make up 8.5 percent of Lakewood's enrollment and represent about $1.1 million to the district's budget.
The state budget already has hit local districts hard. A mass exodus of students from military families would have made it worse. “The scale of what this means is huge,” Haddock said.
Naval Station Everett commanding officer Capt. Michael Coury said the base is ready to support the Nimitz and make sure there is a smooth transition for sailors and families.
“Naval Station Everett has enjoyed a great relationship with (the Lincoln),” Coury said. “We are excited to welcome (the Nimitz) … and will continue to ensure readiness and quality of life for our nation's naval and Coast Guard forces.”
Sailors have mixed views
In Bremerton, sailors on the USS Nimitz learned during a briefing Thursday morning that they would be heading to Everett next year.
Seaman Jaycee Boyd-Garcia, 20, didn't exactly consider the move good news. She was hoping to go back to San Diego to be near her family in Los Angeles.
Many sailors felt the same way about the move Thursday afternoon. It didn't help that Washington greeted them with gray skies and a persistent drizzle.
Boyd-Garcia and her fellow sailor, Faye Fuimaono, 21, ate lunch at a McDonalds restaurant on the Bremerton base after they carried their belongings to the barracks and settled into their rooms.
“I knew that moving around was part of being in the Navy but I really liked San Diego,” Boyd-Garcia said.
The restaurant was filled with Nimitz sailors.
Toni Terry, 30, was reading a book at a table near the window. She was waiting for her fiance to disembark from the carrier so she could drive him to the house they rented not far from the base.
Terry arrived in Bremerton less than two weeks ago. She and other sailors' families heard Wednesday that the ship will be based in Everett. She's excited for the new experiences they will have in Washington.
“I think it's important that the (sailors) have a sense of community and that they feel appreciated, because they work hard,” she said. “And they work hard for us.”
Jerry Cornfield, Katya Yefimova and Debra Smith contributed to this report.
• Gov. Gregoire's announcement
• Sen. Patty Murray's announcement
• Sen. Maria Cantwell's statement
• Navy announcement