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For sale, only $1.8M, with swimming pool: A Cold War Nike missile base in New Jersey

By MELANIE BURNEY | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: April 17, 2020

PHILADELPHIA (Tribune News Service) — Buyer wanted: A Gloucester County community has put up for sale the command section of a Cold War-era Nike missile base that was part of the nation’s defense against an attack by the Soviet Union.

The Army abandoned the 33-acre site in Woolwich Township and hundreds of others like it around the country in 1974. Now the Gloucester County community hopes a commercial developer will buy it.

“We have been interested in selling it for a number of years,” said Jane DiBella, township administrator. “It’s been an eyesore.”

The township sent out a request for proposals last week for uses for two tracts of the site that could include offices, restaurants, retail, breweries, distilleries, indoor recreation, and a park with walking paths and benches. The minimum bid, due by June 15, is $1.8 million, according to the request.

Located on Paulsboro Road, just off Route 322, the Nike base was built as a last line of defense to protect Philadelphia after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I in 1957, said James Heinzen, a history professor at Rowan University. The world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, started the nuclear buildup between the two countries.

“The fear was that they could knock out our cities and defense before we could respond,” said Heinzen, who teaches a course on the Cold War. “It was this whole cycle that was endless.”

The base was among five in South Jersey and seven in Pennsylvania that formed a ring around Philadelphia. Among them was one in Lumberton in Burlington County and another in Bristol, Bucks County. More than 250 Nike bases were scattered around the country. Most were redeveloped into housing when the sites were closed.

The Woolwich site has remnants of its past: hatches that go down 30 feet to the missile vaults, four radio towers, a spare-parts building, a pump house, a mess hall, a drained swimming pool, quarters for officers and enlisted soldiers, a guard shack, and several sheds.

Known as Swedesboro PH-58, the base had two parts: the command section, which housed the facility’s radar towers and control center; and a launch center, where the base’s nuclear-guided missiles were stored horizontally in underground magazines for use if needed to defend major urban centers against Soviet bombers.

With its proximity to major highways, including Interstate 295 and an industrial area, the site has appeal, said Jane Asselta, vice president of the Southern NJ Development Council. It is within walking distance of 3,200 homes, according to the proposal.

“It would really be a good fit for the community,” Asselta said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there were several bids on it.”

DiBella said work is underway that would put the site within the township’s sewer area, making it more attractive to a potential buyer. She said the township already has received several inquiries.

The property for sale in the redevelopment plan is located at Block 14, Lots 2 and 4, mostly overgrown with broken pavement, glass, and debris. The township suggested a possible agricultural or historical theme to potential buyers that incorporates the site’s past as a Nike base.

Woolwich obtained the site from the U.S. government for $828,000 in 2009. Under the purchase agreement, it had to wait three years to sell it to avoid turning over any profit to the government.

After the economy stalled, the township delayed trying to sell the remaining tract. This is the first time the township, one of the fastest-growing in the region, has put out a request for proposals to sell it, DiBella said.

“It has been sitting on our tax rolls for many, many years,” she said.

Although the Nike base is not designated as a historical site, it played a role in the arms race, Heinzen said.

In June 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin discussed the Nike site and the nuclear arms race during the Hollybush Summit, a two-day meeting on the campus of Glassboro State College, now Rowan University, said Heinzen, director of the Hollybush Institute.

Johnson suggested an agreement to curtail the manufacturing of ballistic missiles equipped with nuclear arms. A deal was not reached then, but the 10 hours of talks helped to quell tensions between the countries.

In 1972, the superpowers reached the Salt I treaty, signed by President Richard M. Nixon, to eliminate the anti-ballistic systems. Two years later, the Nike missile bases were decommissioned.

“They gave up the idea that anybody was going to be able to shoot down any of these missiles,” Heinzen said. “It didn’t make any sense.”

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