California Town Divided Over Blackwater Plan
Associated Press (2007-12-11) Allison Hoffman
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By ALLISON HOFFMAN
POTRERO, Calif. (AP) — A proposal by security contractor Blackwater has
divided residents of this sleepy mountain village into two camps: Those
who welcome the company's plans to build a firing range here and
critics who want to keep it out of town.
The issue has become so controversial that voters on Tuesday are set to
consider removing from office five members of the advisory planning
board that endorsed Blackwater's plans.
Blackwater Worldwide wants to turn an 800-acre former chicken farm into
a training camp for law enforcement officers. The facility would
include 11 firing ranges, a driving track and a helipad. But opposition
to the plan intensified in September, after Blackwater guards were
investigated in the shooting deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad.
"This type of company — is this what America represents?" said Carl
Meyer, a former planning board member who is running as an alternate
candidate. "With all the news that's come out about them, most people
wouldn't want them in their backyards."
The San Diego County Board of Supervisors has the final say on the
project, but it has not scheduled a vote.
At the edge of town, hand-painted wooden signs festooned with American
flags say: "Stop Blackwater." But not everyone in this mountain
community 45 miles east of San Diego is opposed to the military
Gordon Hammers, the 70-year-old chairman of the planning board and
chief target of the recall, believes Blackwater can bring development
to turn Potrero into a middle-class town.
Like much of rural San Diego County, Potrero thrives on a pioneer
spirit. The town of about 850 people relies on its own ground water and
is cut off from wealthy coastal California by mountains and miles of
state wilderness preserve.
Many residents moved to the area seeking a connection to nature and a
slower pace of life. They frequently talk about being able to hear cows
lowing at night from miles away.
But Chris Lelevier, a 74-year-old former school board member, fears
Potrero is getting left behind. She wants to ensure her grandchildren
can earn a living without leaving town.
"You hardly even see a house go up," she said. At a planning board
meeting last summer, she asked a Blackwater representative whether her
son, a military veteran, would be able to get a job with the training
On the other side of the issue are residents such as 64-year-old Marion
Bowles, a dreadlocked former schoolteacher who talks about old American
Indian myths that imagined the valley as a child's cradle. She said she
would rather see the former ranch turned into an organic farm and
"This is where God comes down to earth. That's his throne!" said
Bowles, pointing at the peaks surrounding the town. "This is land
designated by the county as agricultural preserve, forest, park land,
and they want to start shooting and making noise."
For Blackwater, the valley would be an ideal complement to its
headquarters in Moyock, N.C., and a satellite training center in Mount
Carroll, Ill., about 150 miles west of Chicago.
The California site is remote and shielded by mountains, but it is also
a short drive from downtown San Diego and its array of military bases
and federal law-enforcement field offices — including U.S. Immigration
and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol.
In the wake of the Baghdad shootings, the company is focusing on its
training operations and trying to wean itself from overseas contracts.
"We're all aware that the war will end and the security operations will
wind down eventually," said Brian Bonfiglio, a company vice president
who is overseeing the proposal. "So we're focusing on training, and
that's where we're growing."
On the Net:
Blackwater Worldwide,: http://www.blackwaterusa.com