Coast Guard Personnel – An Integral Part of the Albemarle Area

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Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City opened in 1940 as a seaplane facility with only four officers and 52 enlisted personnel. Over the past 75 years, the Coast Guard’s presence in Elizabeth City has grown to include five major commands spread over the 822 acres located near Weeksville as well as other properties in the Elizabeth City area. Today, the Base Support Unit, Air Station, Aviation Technical Training Center, Aviation Logistics Center, National Strike Force Coordination Center, C27J Asset Project Office, and Small Boat Station Elizabeth City have 855 military personnel assigned to them. In addition, over 600 civilians and 1000 direct contract employees work at the various commands, making the U.S. Coast Guard the largest employer in Pasquotank County.

The Dollar Impact

The total military, civilian, and contractor payrolls total nearly $180 million – that represents 48% of Pasquotank County’s GDP. In addition to those directly involved in the base, Elizabeth City/Pasquotank County Economic Development Commission Director Wayne Harris says there are an estimated 650 jobs created by the presence of the Coast Guard base. These “induced jobs” are primarily in the retail and restaurant sectors. All told, Coast Guard direct, indirect, and induced employment represents 21% of Pasquotank County employment with 13.7% being directly employed by the Coast Guard.

The Human Side

But the numbers only tell part of the story of the impact that the Coast Guard has on the area. From the time they arrive in the Albemarle area, Coast Guard personnel and their families jump into the community and contribute in many areas including volunteering in schools and other civic and religious events.

Coast Guard personnel can be seen helping out with Boy and Girl Scout troops, the Food Bank of the Albemarle, the Museum of the Albemarle, and the Northeastern North Carolina SPCA. Military personnel are encouraged to participate in local activities, and Base Commanding Officer Bruce Brown leads the way by serving on the boards of the Chamber of Commerce, Economic Development Commission, Elizabeth City Downtown, Inc., the Mayor’s Area Committee of 100, the American Red Cross, and the Elizabeth City Airport Authority.

The Coast Guard Enlisted Association (CGEA), under the direction of YN3 Casey Lawrence, is actively involved with the local Meals on Wheels program. The group delivered meals one day a week in 2014 and increased their commitment to two days a week this year in addition to donating $300 to the program.

Since Lawrence took the helm as president of the organization toward the end of 2013, membership has grown from less than 10 to over 50.

Lawrence has also been involved with the establishment of a food pantry on base for service members with ranks of E6 and below who frequently need financial assistance but, as she says, “are too proud to ask.” The pantry is a joint effort between the CGEA, base employees who donated food, a private donor who gave $1,000, and the Albemarle Food Pantry which donated 650 pounds of baby food when the facility first opened. When the pantry opened its doors, five people were already waiting in line for assistance. The food pantry is located in the base chapel and is available 24/7 to military families.

The organization also prepared Thanksgiving baskets which included everything for 26 needy Coast Guard families for their holiday meal. Lawrence said the group worked with Food Lion to prepare the baskets and raised $1,000 to pay for the project. In addition, for Christmas they prepared an Angel Tree to help local members.

Since his arrival from St. Petersburg, FL, Cdr. Brown has worked to cement the relationship between the base and the local community. “We sometimes are our own worst enemy,” he says. “The bases fenced [in] and people don’t know what we do. We have a marketing problem on the base and need to get the word out about what is going on there.” He hopes that his involvement in the community will help people understand the many things Coast Guardsmen do in this area.

A Welcoming Touch

Transferring to a new duty station is always a stressful time for service members, but many speak of the easy transition they had  when coming to Elizabeth City. “I transferred to Elizabeth City from Miami as an E5 and I absolutely love it, as does my family,” says AET2 Sean McGaughan.

“The people are actually incredibly cordial to you. Everyone is not simply out for themselves here; they hold doors open and will actually thank you if you do the same for them. I am friends with all of my neighbors.”

Working with the other base commanders and Chamber President Kelly Thorsby, Brown has worked to prepare a welcome package that is distributed to all new personnel when they arrive in the area. The package includes a local phone book and map, information about the area, and discounts from local chamber members.

Chief Dan Carr says he changed his residence to North Carolina when he was transferred from Portsmouth, VA in 1995. “In almost 21 years of service, I’m on my 16th non-consecutive year in Elizabeth City. I plan to ask for one more four-year tour of duty here at which time I hope to retire.”

The community especially shows its appreciation of base personnel during Coast Guard Week which kicks off during the last week of July. The Elizabeth City Area Chamber of Commerce organizes over 40 local government and business leaders to serve food at the Coast Guard Day picnic. Many personnel say they have never had a community come out to support them in this way. “The support is amazing,” Cdr. Brown said. In addition, throughout the week local businesses offer military discounts.

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What to Do

To combat the often-heard complaint that there is nothing to do in Elizabeth City, Carr has included a listing of activities for the Albemarle region and the Outer Banks beaches in the Plan of the Week newsletter which is distributed to all of the base employees. This weekly communication has meant that more personnel are participating in community events.

Local business and community leaders count on Coast Guard help during special events such as the Potato Festival in the spring. Co-chair Cindy Williams said that the nearly 300 Coast Guard personnel who volunteer during the festival to help with stage set up and take down is invaluable. “They’re strong guys and we really need them,” she said. “They even help peel and slice potatoes.”

Coast Guard involvement is felt in many other community events such as the Ghost Walk and Moon Fest, and the Chamber of Commerce’s River City Rhythm and Brews Craft Beer Festival.

Numerous special events are scheduled for 2015 to celebrate the base’s 75th anniversary. Currently on tap are a 7.5K Anniversary Run to raise funds for local charitable organizations, release of a Coast Guard themed First Day issue stamp, a Coast Guard display at the Museum of the Albemarle, and a special Coast Guard mascot at the Potato Festival.

Article By: Jane Elfring
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