Around joint base, feeling is: Enough already

Near the joint base , Wrightstown Mayor Tom Harper, who owns a gas station, says business has slowed. "If the cars aren't going by," he says, "people aren't stopping in." AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
Near the joint base , Wrightstown Mayor Tom Harper, who owns a gas station, says business has slowed. "If the cars aren't going by," he says, "people aren't stopping in." AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 04, 2013

Tom Harper sees the difference each morning.

Outside his Liberty gas station in Wrightstown, the traffic is usually bumper to bumper between 6:45 and 7:45 as federal civilian workers report to work, then wait in a long line that stretches from the nearby gate of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.

Not now.

Since the government shutdown and massive furloughs, the number of cars "has been cut back 60 to 70 percent," said Harper, who is also the town's mayor. "If the cars aren't going by, people aren't stopping in for gas.

"They're not stopping at other gas stations - or at restaurants, cleaners, and repair shops," he said. "They're sitting at home because they can't afford to do anything."

Throughout this small Burlington County town, the story was the same Wednesday. Business owners are feeling the financial impact of the shutdown, which began the day before, and want it to end before it cuts any deeper into their bottom line.

Base officials did not say Wednesday just how many of the 6,700 civilian workers for the Department of Defense there were affected by furloughs. Tens of thousands of military personnel, who are not subject to furlough, live and work at the vast facility.

"It's been slower than normal, especially considering we're right next to the military base," said Jessica Canterman, a waitress at the Toyko C Japanese restaurant on Fort Dix Street, a few dozen feet from the base gate. "I'd absolutely like to see the shutdown end."

Other restaurants, such as a Wendy's and the Stone House Eatery, also on Fort Dix Street, have noticed the customer traffic fluctuate and drop off, too.

A line of customers ordering food usually runs from a counter of the Stone House to the door. On Wednesday, the line was much shorter.

"Hopefully, the shutdown is over soon," said Tiffany Yates, a cashier at Yordana's Pizza & Pasta restaurant outside the base gate, where the dining room was nearly empty at 1:30.

Some customers "have been talking about the shutdown," she said. "A couple of soldiers said they didn't know if they would be getting paychecks."

At Good Cleaners, at Railroad Avenue and Fort Dix Street, Annie Chen was working at a machine that was preparing nameplates for military uniforms. "We haven't had as many people passing the past couple days," she said, "so business has dropped off."

Nearby, the parking lot of a 7-Eleven store at Main and Fort Dix Streets was nearly empty, and at the Staff Sgt. Terry Hemingway Visitors Center off Route 68, contract workers who were unaffected by the shutdown were no longer issuing passes for visitors to enter the base.

From inside the base, officials said they "will continue to conduct missions in support of national security and public safety during the shutdown, but other operations and activities will halt."

Several base facilities and activities, such as the Auto Skills Center, Civilian Personnel Office, Community Activities Center, the Flight Deck community center, youth sports programs, administrative services for family child care, the Fort Dix official mail center, and several of the Civil Engineer Squadron's customer-service functions, were closed.

Thousands of soldiers, their families, and veterans were especially disappointed by the closing of the base commissary, which offers groceries at steep discounts.

Before its doors closed at 8 p.m. Tuesday, hundreds of people showed up to make last-minute purchases and take advantage of a big sale on perishable items such as milk and bread.

"It was hectic," said base spokeswoman Angel Lopez. "The shelves were clearing out."

On the base's Facebook page, regular customers of the commissary were unhappy.

"Frustrating!" wrote one. "I understand there are other places to shop besides on base. The problem is those places are further to drive (costing extra gas), and the prices are higher (hurting our already-tight budget)."

Another wrote: "The commissary is MUCH cheaper than Acme, and for people who have a big family, that could be a huge difference. . . . They should give all the perishables to all the workers who are out of work right now."

The commissary bargains will be missed by many. "It does make a huge difference to the younger families who don't have multiple stripes on their shoulders, but have a family to support or families with more than one kid," said another customer. "However, the way I see it is, yes, this sucks, but it could be way worse."

Just outside the Wrightstown gate at Tom Harper's gas station, attendant George Bereznak wasn't making as many runs to the pumps Wednesday as he normally does. "All the [base] civilian employees are gone," he said. "It's got to affect business. It affects everybody."

Harper hopes the standoff in Washington is over soon.

"You'd think the federal government could get one thing right," the mayor said. "They're elected officials. They know what they've got to do.

"As the mayor of a town, I have to pass a budget on time, or the state has certain sanctions it will put against me," he said. "Who puts sanctions against the federal government?"

Harper said as elected representatives, "they are still getting paid, still getting benefits, but the average guy is not.

"That's the guy who works 40 hours a week, who tries to put something away," he said. "Now, they're messing with car payments and mortgages. It's backroom politics."

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