CALIFORNIA ALBUM : A Symbol for the Decline of Aerospace : General Dynamics was once San Diego County’s largest private employer. But with the Cold War’s end it has been vanishing piece by piece. It even--to the dismay of many--is dismantling Missile Park, its popular playground.
There may be no better emblem for the rise and fall of the aerospace industry in Southern California than Missile Park.
For most of the years after World War II, tens of thousands of middle-class families enjoyed its many benefits and rallied proudly under its banner of patriotism and technological know-how. But now have come bad economic times and it is being dismantled, leaving only memories and disappointment and an uncertain future.
Missile Park--so named for the 80-foot Atlas 2E intercontinental ballistic missile standing upright at its entry--has been a not-so-secret garden for the employees of General Dynamics Corp. and their families since the 1950s.
The 27-acre park, set beside the General Dynamics plant in the San Diego neighborhood called Kearny Mesa, offers a feast of recreational possibilities: baseball fields, picnic tables, horseshoe pits, swings, a miniature train, a carousel, an exercise club, toddler playground, tennis courts, dining hall, community meeting rooms and more, all amid palm trees and a manicured lawn.
When General Dynamics was flush--working around the clock to produce the rocketry to put America in space and the missiles to keep American enemies at bay--Missile Park became the second most popular park in San Diego, behind only the famed (and much larger) Balboa Park.
Although privately owned, the park has been loaned to numerous companies for picnics and to the YMCA, youth soccer and adult softball leagues. Thirty-five groups, from the amateur radio club to the woodworking enthusiasts, have used its meeting rooms.
Then came the end of the Cold War and the piecemeal sale of General Dynamics. Missile Park is on the chopping block.
For four decades the largest private employer in San Diego County, General Dynamics has but a thousand or so employees left here and even most of those will be jobless by early next year. Small wonder that the newly slimmed-down company, headquartered in Falls Church, Va., has decided that a park for its retirees and former employees in San Diego is an extravagance it cannot afford.
General Dynamics wants to turn Missile Park and the adjacent property into a “mixed-use complex,” which in planningspeak probably means a shopping mall and a light industrial park.
“We’re not developers,” said Tommy Augustsson, corporate director of facilities for General Dynamics. “But we have a major parcel that we don’t want to lie fallow. That doesn’t make good economic sense.”
Against all odds, a group of retired General Dynamics employees is trying to save Missile Park, possibly by having the city of San Diego buy the property and open it to the public. But the city has money problems itself and this budget season only narrowly averted closing libraries and laying off firefighters.
Barring an unforeseen reprieve, Missile Park is set to close by December, when General Dynamics hopes to have its redevelopment plans at full throttle.
The miniature train, one of the park’s favorite amenities, has been sold. The shiny aluminum missile has been donated to the San Diego Aerospace Museum in Balboa Park, which plans to display it at the branch museum at Gillespie Field in El Cajon.
“It’s sad what’s happening,” said Fred Major, 64, who retired from General Dynamics in 1988 as program manager/chief engineer for the cruise missile project and is now spurring the drive to save Missile Park. “We all thought aerospace would be in San Diego forever. We were just dumb and happy.”
There was a time when the philosophy at City Hall was “what’s good for General Dynamics is good for San Diego.”
When the company, known locally as GD, decided to move aggressively into the missile business, city officials arranged for it to acquire 232 acres in Kearny Mesa at a bargain price. The northeastern corner of that land became Missile Park.
By 1961, General Dynamics had 46,859 employees at several plants in San Diego, composing 15% of the county’s civilian work force. As recently as the late 1980s, GD had nearly 20,000 workers in San Diego. The Tomahawk missiles that pounded Iraq during the Persian Gulf War were built at Kearny Mesa.
As defense spending plummeted in the 1990s, the General Dynamics board, led by former astronaut and Chief Executive Officer William Anders, decided to sell off the company’s divisions and split the profits among stockholders rather than attempt to convert the company to non-defense products.
Anders, a native San Diegan who circled the moon in Apollo 8 in 1968 and took the famous “Earth rising” photo, had once been feted as a local hero. Still, he rejected the notion of retrofitting the San Diego plants and retraining the San Diego workers.
In one fateful press release about what Anders called the company’s “plan of contraction,” he explained: “We continue to believe that the most effective and efficient way to apply our excess cash to the commercial economy is through its distribution to our shareholders.”
The rocket division was sold to Martin Marietta Astronautics (which later merged with Lockheed). The missile division was sold to Hughes Aircraft. Martin Marietta and Hughes promptly shipped General Dynamics’ contracts and several thousand jobs to their plants in Tucson and Denver, respectively.
The final General Dynamics unit of any size remaining in San Diego is the Convair aircraft division with 1,400 employees at a waterfront plant. Even that division will fold when it finishes a contract to build jet fuselages for McDonnell-Douglas.
The Convair plant--where Consolidated Aircraft, later purchased by General Dynamics, made the famed World War II bomber called the B-24 Liberator--will revert to the San Diego Unified Port District. When that happens, the day many San Diegans thought would never come will have arrived: San Diego without GD.
“General Dynamics was once the 800-pound gorilla of San Diego,” said Howard Ruggles, director of military-government relations for the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce. “And now it is going to disappear.”
By selling out, particularly to firms not interested in keeping jobs in San Diego, General Dynamics ignored the impassioned pleas of local officials.
A great deal of civic anger was directed at Anders, who was paid nearly $30 million during his 3 1/2 years as chief executive and board chairman as he deftly orchestrated the moves that cost tens of thousands of San Diegans their jobs.
The reservoir of goodwill that once existed for General Dynamics at City Hall has now all but dried up.
“General Dynamics did a lot of good for this community,” said Councilwoman Valerie Stallings, who represents Kearny Mesa. “But the way they pulled out, they hurt a lot of people, and it’s time for them to give consideration to the people they left high and dry in San Diego.”
Stallings, facing a tough reelection campaign in the fall, toured Missile Park on Friday and vowed to explore ways to retain at least a portion of it. She is annoyed that General Dynamics did not come to City Hall sooner to discuss Missile Park and the rest of the 232-acre parcel.
“In the beginning, General Dynamics was less than forthcoming and didn’t see the importance of community involvement,” she said. “That’s why I made a stink at City Council.”
The stink apparently got the company’s attention.
“We do not want to be indifferent or insensitive to the concerns of the community,” said Norine Lyons, the firm’s director of public affairs.
The land beneath Missile Park is owned by the company but the park was built by an employees association and has been operated by the association with profits from vending machines at General Dynamics’ plants. One idea being floated by Major and others in the save-the-park drive is to allow the park to be run by private concessions under a contract with the city.
Nathaniel Cohen, 72, who retired in 1989 from the research and development unit in the missile division, finds Missile Park “a gem, like an oasis in a desert.”
He wants General Dynamics, despite its recent philosophy of selling assets to the highest bidder, to give Missile Park to the city as a goodwill gesture and exclude the 27 acres from its redevelopment plan for the Kearny Mesa property.
“General Dynamics made billions of dollars on that site,” Cohen said. “I think it’s time they gave a little back.”