Pressure Added for Store at El Toro

Times Staff Writer

Three Orange County congressional members want the Defense Department to consider reopening the commissary at the closed El Toro Marine base, challenging an earlier federal study that said the store wouldn't be financially viable.

Commissary supporters say the discount grocery store could be a moneymaker because it would generate more sales than the government assumes, according to a letter from Reps. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) and Ed Royce (R-Fullerton).

The letter said federal law authorizes the secretary of defense to maintain and operate commissary operations on up to 10 closed military bases, a number that hasn't been reached.

"Our constituencies have become quite frustrated as to why the government is not supportive of our men and women in the military who have given so much for our country," the letter said.

The Pentagon study contained incorrect information about how much money local military families would spend on food at the base, according to the Keep the Commissary Committee, which formed after El Toro was targeted in 1993 for permanent closure. The base closed in July 1999.

The study estimated that the area's 23,000 eligible commissary patrons, including retired and active-duty military, would spend an average of $650 a year on groceries, said KTC Chairman Al Harvard. But a study of buying patterns at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County by the Defense Commissary Agency showed that commissary patrons there, including Orange County residents, spent about $3,000 a year on groceries.

If only half of eligible local patrons used the El Toro commissary, it would generate about $30 million a year in grocery sales, Harvard argued.

About 280 commissaries worldwide provide groceries to U.S. military personnel, retirees and their families. Shoppers are offered items at cost plus 5%, which pays for upgrading stores and building new ones. Shoppers save at least 30% over civilian prices, according to the commissary agency, based at Ft. Lee, Va.

The El Toro group argues that the commissary is an ongoing obligation of the federal government to compensate military personnel for their service. Orange County military recruiters also have asked the government to keep the commissary open.

"This is the least we can do for our military," said Ken Lee, spokesman for the group.

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