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(MOBILE PRESS-REGISTER (AL) 23 MAR 10) ... Dan Murtaugh

MOBILE, Ala. -- When the U.S.S. Independence begins its trip to Norfolk, Va., later this week, Mobile will lose more than just a prominent fixture along its riverfront.

More than 80 U.S. Navy personnel who have been stationed in Mobile while the littoral combat ship was docked in front of Austal's facility will be leaving, too, according to Michelle Bowden, an Austal spokeswoman.

Crew members have lived in Mobile for more than a year, dining in local restaurants and shopping in area malls, said retired Navy Capt. Hal Pierce, Mobile's longtime Navy port visit coordinator.

Pierce has invited anyone in the area to come to the Arthur R. Outlaw Convention Center or Cooper Riverside Park at 9:30 a.m. Friday to wave flags and watch the Independence leave Mobile.

"It's been real important to Mobile, and we want to give everyone a chance to kiss it good-bye," he said.

Most of the crew lived in the StoneRidge condominiums in Midtown until about a month ago, when they were able to move on board the ship, Pierce said.

In addition, several Navy officials have been in and out of Mobile during the construction of the ship, culminating in the commissioning ceremony in January that drew thousands to the riverfront.

"I can't even count all the impact it's had," Pierce said.

The ship's departure will not impact employment at Austal, Bowden said. The shipyard has about 1,000 employees now and is in the midst of a hiring another 500 workers by the end of June, she said.

A small group of Austal workers will accompany the ship's crew to Norfolk before returning to Mobile, she said.

Austal is currently working on the second littoral combat ship, the Coronado. It should be launched into the Mobile River next spring, and is scheduled to be delivered to the Navy in 2012, according to Bill Pfister, an Austal vice president.

Some Navy personnel will stay with the Coronado in Mobile after Independence leaves, Bowden said.

Austal is currently competing with a team led by Lockheed Martin for a contract worth up to 10 ships and billions of dollars. Bids are due April 12.

Navy Lt. j.g. Jan Bowers said the Independence will remain in Norfolk for about a year while undergoing testing.

What happens next remains an open question, she said. The first littoral combat ship, the U.S.S. Freedom, was deployed in February, 2½ years early, Bowers said. It's already intercepted three drug-smuggling ships in the western Caribbean.

"There really is a great need in the fleet for the capability that the LCS class brings," Bowers said.

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