Driving to the Union Hall on Bridge City Avenue on Monday afternoon, Andrew Croom had not yet gotten word that Huntington Ingalls and Kinder Morgan had just decided against pursuing a joint venture that could have brought at least some work back to the once-bustling, now nearly deserted Avondale Shipyard.
The news hardly came as a surprise.
After a protracted drawdown that began — at least officially — in 2011, the shipyard closed quietly in December.
In March, the shipbuilding company Huntington Ingalls pulled the plug on a small outfitting yard it had recently opened in Waggaman after it failed to generate enough work for more than a handful of employees.
“We were hoping we might get something,” said Croom, a former Avondale Shipyard employee and president of the local metal workers union. “We’re still thinking something (could happen), but with this Waggaman yard closing, it might be the end of the road for it.”
In Monday’s announcement, Ingalls said its yearlong effort to find an economically viable alternative use for the giant shipyard with the energy infrastructure company Kinder Morgan had come up empty. The two companies, Ingalls said, “have mutually decided not to move forward with a joint venture.”
Ingalls said it will continue to consider alternatives for the facility, including selling it to a third party, and will continue to work with the state.
Stephen Moret, the executive director of Louisiana Economic Development, said Monday’s announcement was a disappointment. However, he said the state’s offer of a $214 million incentive package to help pay for workforce training and major upgrades to the shipyard remains on the table, so long as Huntington Ingalls can find a partner to make the facility operational and employ 3,850 full-time workers.
In a prepared statement, Moret said the state is committed to working with Ingalls but that he was glad the company “has opened up the possibility of selling the site to a third party that could redeploy it as a major job-creating facility.”
Avondale spent more than seven decades as a major regional employer. In its heyday it was the state’s largest private employer and laid the foundation for middle-class communities across the West Bank and beyond.
It now consists of about 200 engineers at the UNO-Avondale Maritime Technology Center of Excellence, where they provide support to Huntington Ingalls’ shipbuilding efforts in Mississippi and other points in the Gulf region.
Ingalls spokeswoman Beci Brenton said a crew remains on the site to make sure the shipyard is “well-maintained for potential redeployment.”
Croom, who worked at Avondale for 42 years before he was forced into retirement in 2013, said he visited the yard early Thursday morning, just for curiosity’s sake.
He said it was a surreal experience to drive past all the former entrances that are now fenced over, gate 5, the main entrance, and gate 38, which teemed with life for decades, not only during shift changes but even in between, thanks to the enclave of bars, restaurants, shops and clubs that sprang up along Bridge City Avenue.
“You go there looking for things that aren’t there no more,” Croom said. “You see Gate 5 all fenced up, with big cement barricades and the road all blocked off. You say, ‘Man, there were a lot of people working at this place.’ It just throws back an image on you.”
Croom started working at Avondale in 1971, making $2.30 an hour as an insulator, the same job he held when he retired in 2013.
He recalled walking into the gates and seeing 27 Navy destroyers and three Coast Guard cutters lined up at the docks.
“You could look down and there were ships as far as the eye could see,” he said. “You thought there’d always be work. It really gets you when you look down there now and see nothing but the cranes.”
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.