YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — Top officials at tiny Chinhae Naval Air Station are challenging an order to close the base’s commissary.

Cmdr. Rusty Hagins, the chief staff officer at Fleet Activities Chinhae, said Tuesday a formal letter has been sent through the Secretary of the Navy explaining why Chinhae should not be on the list of commissaries to be closed in fiscal 2004.

“The basis for the decision was on census data that was either incorrect or old,” Hagins said in a telephone interview last week. “They didn’t ask us for our input.”

If officials had called, they would have been given proper figures, including tenant commands — those on the base but officially listed as separate from Fleet Activities Chinhae, he said. There are 150 active-duty personnel and, when combined with family members and Department of Defense civilians, the base population is closer to 300.

According to an “information paper” from the Defense Department explaining the closures, Chinhae had only 91 active-duty personnel and is 30 miles from the nearest alternate commissary.

According to the document, criteria for viable commissaries included at least 100 active-duty personnel at an installation; at least 20 miles or 30 minutes one-way travel time to the closest commissary and civilian shopping alternatives.

Hagins and others point out another problem.

The next closest commissary, 30 miles away at Camp Hialeah in Pusan, could also close in fiscal 2004 if its sales do not improve. If the Hialeah store closes, the closest commissary would be 80 miles away in Taegu.

And with South Korean traffic, he said, there’s no telling how long that trip would take.

A third factor was not considered, Hagins said. Each spring and fall, when U.S. forces conduct large military exercises in the southern part of the country, the Chinhae population swells rapidly.

Along with Pusan, two other commissaries on Army bases in South Korea face closure if they don’t improve their sales. The stores at camps Howze and Page are on a list of commissaries to be monitored quarterly for financial performance.

Officials at the Korea Regional Office of the Installation Management Agency said they were unaware of any efforts to remove Pusan, Howze or Page from the list of commissaries to be closed.

But at Chinhae, Navy officers are optimistic they’ll keep their store.

Their letter has reached the assistant secretary of the Navy and has the support of officials at the highest levels, Hagins said.

“I don’t know if there is an official appeals process, but we are working through the chain of command and we are pretty confident they will see our point,” he said. “The decision was based on a bad piece of data.”

The Chinhae commissary currently stocks about 5,500 different line items, Hagins said. An AAFES shopette on the base carries about 150 items, more or less a convenience store inventory.

If the commissary is closed, Hagins said the base will look at alternatives including a weekly shuttle service to the commissary in Taegu, setting up a car-pooling system or requesting an increase in the cost-of-living allowance to cover more shopping on the local economy.

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