Pentagon Pressed on El Toro Store

Times Staff Writer

Ever since the commissary at the mothballed El Toro Marine Base closed in the fall of 2000, thousands of soldiers and veterans have been spending hours on the freeways driving to March Air Reserve Base near Riverside or Camp Pendleton in San Diego County.

Those who didn't have the time or the patience to make the trip settled for the higher prices at Vons, Safeway or other grocery stores.

But there might be a glimmer of hope for those veterans on fixed incomes and active duty personnel on military incomes looking for bargains.

U.S. Reps. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) and Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) have agreed to turn up the heat on the Pentagon by urging the Department of Defense to reopen El Toro's commissary.

In recent letters to the Department of Defense, Cox and Sanchez argue that a 2001 department feasibility study on reopening the commissary was inaccurate.

The study had concluded that reopening the El Toro commissary would not be cost effective. But Cox said the study based its findings on the premise that each military family member would spend $58 a month on groceries, or about $2 a day.

Cox estimates that a typical military family member would spend $154 a month, meaning the commissary's annual revenue would be more than $52 million, nearly three times the original projection.

"The question is: Will the commissary pay for itself or will it need to be subsidized?" Cox said Friday. "I think the veterans and active duty personnel are more than willing to structure the facility so that it pays for itself."

Ken Lee, spokesman for Keep the El Toro Commissary Committee, said the old commissary building on the northwest side of the base just needs paint and roof and air-conditioning repairs. Lee, whose group has been active since 1999, said it would take about $3 million to refurbish the store.

"The check stands and the shelves are still there," Lee said. "It's almost in move-in condition. We're not looking for a multi-level Vons Pavilion. We wouldn't care if it were under an inflatable roof."

The market, a 60,000-square foot, single-story facility with warehouse space, served about 12,000 families. Lee said about 4,000 active duty and 14,000 veterans who live in the area would benefit if the commissary reopened.

"The commissary saves the average military family about 25% a month," said Lee, whose father is a retired Air Force officer living in Tustin.

"It's one of the few benefits we have left."

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