'Our basic policy is to give the sailor a good deal'

MARYSVILLE — If patriotism, a sense of duty and a search for adventure aren't enough, how about $1.30 for a pound of beef?

OK, so maybe no one ever enlisted in the Navy simply because of the perks you'll find at the sprawling Navy Support Complex, but it's not out of the realm of possibility.

After all, easing some of everyday life's burdens for Naval Station Everett sailors, as well as for their families, is the complex's main reason for being.

Whether it's finding a job, fixing a car, seeking counseling or, in what may be its biggest role, making it possible to buy everything from furniture to eyeglasses without paying sales tax, it can be found at the 52-acre support complex. It's there that a mother can find resources to help her cope with a new baby while her husband is on a ship thousands of miles away. Newly transferred families can use the complex to find a place to live.

The complex is home to a large commissary — essentially a giant supermarket — a department-store-like exchange, a chapel, athletic fields, counseling offices and bachelor officers' quarters. And more.

Gayle Burdin, the life-skills coordinator for the Fleet and Family Support Center, said the facility has far more resources than even users realize.

"They don't know what resources are available to them, and they're grossly underutilized," Burdin said. "We have fabulous resources that in the civilian community would be very expensive."

The complex was built to support the personnel stationed at Naval Station Everett, but the client base is much larger. As Burdin noted, the complex is open to "anyone with a military ID in their pocket."

That includes 5,600 active-duty personnel, 7,900 family members, 6,000 retirees, 10,000 family members of retirees, and more than 1,000 Department of Defense employees and their families — a total of more than 30,000 in Western Washington.

Those who do take advantage of services at the complex on 136th Street Northeast in the Smokey Point area will find everything from college classes and a library to a spouse-employment service and a new-parent-support team.

"We do home visits, especially if guys are out on ships," said Tammy Halverson, a new-parent-support home visitor.

Such social-services functions are under the direction of Burdin and Tony Barrick, chief of clinical services in the 18-member family-support center.

"Everything we do is free," Barrick noted. "When you've never been away from your home of origin before, who do you ask? The nature of the military life is that you move."

It's largely to cope with such stresses that the $90 million complex was opened in 1995.

Much of the service provided at the Smokey Point complex replaces functions that had been run out of the now-closed Sand Point Naval Air Station in Seattle.

The Smokey Point complex looks more like a community-college campus than military-style installation, which was intentional, said Ernie Denney, the recreation director.

"We wanted to blend in with the community and not be one of those haze-gray, empty-looking bases," he said.

Like other staff members at the complex, Denney has a fundamental aim of making life better for sailors and their families.

"Our basic policy is to give the sailor a good deal," he said.

Those deals are almost enough to make military pay look attractive.

Want to go fishing? It's possible to rent a boat, trailer and 9-horsepower motor at the recreation center. Skis? Simple: There's a ski shop. Fly-tying classes? Those are offered, too.

"The only things we don't do are bungee jumping and sky diving," Denney said.

Marc Heise, a former sailor who's now in the Naval Reserve and attends the University of Washington, drives to the support complex's auto hobby shop to work on his pickup.

"Today, I'm changing my oil, checking my brakes," he said during a recent visit to the complex.

"Basically, if I want to do anything to my car, I can come in here and work under a heater. That's hard to do living in Seattle in an apartment complex."

For Nicole Czarapata and her son, Jacob, 3, a big attraction one recent afternoon was getting a hamburger at McDonald's — there's one of those on the base, along with a Subway sandwich shop.

"He calls it the Navy store," said Czarapata, whose husband, Don, is a Navy flight officer serving on an EA-6B Prowler stationed on Whidbey Island.

For the thousands of daily visitors, the complex is more like a suburban shopping center than a Navy base, with the commissary and Navy exchange among the main attractions.

One of the major changes since the complex opened is increased security since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. All but one entrance is blocked with concrete barriers, and security checks are done at the remaining gate. In fact, the new security measures have reduced use of commissary facilities, according to Maj. Gen. Michael Wiedemer, director of the Defense Commissary Agency.

"I have observed that a number of our patrons continue to stay away from our stores," he wrote in a recent newsletter. "They have not returned largely due to their perception that gaining access to their commissary is not worth the inconvenience."

Still, for Kristina Andrews, walking out of the Navy exchange while pushing a loaded shopping cart with one hand and pulling a new bicycle with the other, the ability to spend less is a powerful draw. For Andrews and others living on military incomes, the ability to save while shopping for basics helps them balance budgets.

Andrews estimated she had spent $650 on Christmas gifts at the exchange that afternoon and said the lack of sales taxes "probably saved me $50, at least."

All of it is done without advertising because laws governing commissary and exchange operations preclude off-base marketing.

Al Taitingfong, the exchange's general manager, compared his work to running a major department store.

"We do major appliances. We do furniture," Taitingfong said.

The 55,000-square-foot exchange does about $22 million in business annually.

"About 150,000, 200,000 people a month come through here," Taitingfong said. "We get people from Eastern Washington. We get them from Spokane. People come for the pharmacy, once a quarter."

At the commissary, store director Janice Tanouye oversees sales of more than $23 million in groceries and other supplies annually.

"We are a weekend store," she said. "Saturdays and Sundays are our top two days."

By law, Tanouye explained, pricing is done at cost plus 5 percent to pay for building maintenance and other overhead. The result is significant savings for service families.

"A retail store would have probably a 300 percent markup on things like batteries and light bulbs," Tanouye said. Stepping over to a shelf shows a four-pack of General Electric 75-watt bulbs selling for $1.42 and an 8-pack of AA Duracell batteries for $2.87.

At the meat department, ground beef is $1.30 a pound, and a sign nearby gets right to the point, comparing prices with Safeway and Food Pavilion. Hamburger is $3.29 at Safeway that day and $3.49 at Food Pavilion, it notes.

"They don't make a whole lot of money working for the military," Tanouye said. "This is their benefit right here."

Peyton Whitely: 206-464-2259 or pwhitely@seattletimes.com.