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Don’t Fight It. It Might Just Work Out

10 minute read
Douglas Waller

To hear the politicians and local leaders tell it, closing a military base is about the worst thing you can do to a community. Ever since Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld listed the 180 or so installations he wants shut down next, local anger and fear have simmered. Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman denounced the proposed mothballing of the naval submarine base at Groton as “cruel and unusual punishment,” and state officials have churned out stacks of reports disputing the $1.6 billion the Pentagon claims it will save from the move. At Maine’s Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, thousands of workers shouting “Take us off the list!” have demonstrated before visiting members of a commission reviewing Rumsfeld’s recommendation to do away with the facility. Faced with the shuttering of his state’s second largest employer, Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota Senator John Thune wants to attach an amendment to this year’s defense bill to delay all base closings.

It’s probably too late. The nine-member Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which has toured the country since May to hear pleas from closing opponents in affected communities, plans to vote this week to approve or amend Rumsfeld’s choices. Then Bush and Congress must accept or reject the commission’s final list by late fall.

Is closing a base necessarily the economic catastrophe communities fear? The evidence suggests that it isn’t. The Defense Department estimates that the areas surrounding the 97 major bases closed during the past four rounds (in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995) have so far replaced almost 85% of the civilian jobs lost. An independent study released in May by the Government Accountability Office concluded that most of those communities “are faring well compared with average U.S. rates for unemployment and income growth.”

Recovery takes time–five to 10 years in most cases–and there are hurdles and frustrations along the way. “But there is life after a base closure,” says Tim Ford, executive director of the Association of Defense Communities, a nonprofit organization that has been advising cities and towns facing closings over the past 30 years. Here is how four communities have coped:


Austin, Texas, was at first staggered when the news arrived in spring 1991 that nearby Bergstrom Air Force Base was on the base-closings list. The 12th Air Force headquarters and two air wings at the 52-year-old facility would take almost 5,000 military and civilian jobs with them once they moved out, and that was projected to drain $339 million annually from the local economy.

But at the same time city leaders “had the ‘uh-oh!’ moment, they also had the ‘aha!’ moment,” recalls Kirk Watson, a lawyer and then community leader who later became Austin’s mayor. As luck would have it, Austin was in the market for a new airport to replace the 63-year-old one the city had long outgrown. Bergstrom, with its 12,250-ft. runway, on which giant B-52 bombers could land, was ideal for the jumbo jets that carry the international air-cargo traffic Austin wanted to attract. So the city seized the opportunity, wading through mounds of federal red tape to have the base transferred to it and persuading reluctant airlines to relocate to a facility that would need extensive renovation for commercial traffic. A $400 million local bond referendum was passed to convert the base into a commercial airport, and federal and state money came in to build highways feeding into the facility.

Eight years later, city officials proudly stood on the tarmac of the new Austin-Bergstrom International Airport as Air Force One taxied up with Bill Clinton inside as one of the first arrivals. The terminal has special touches: Amy’s Ice Cream and the Salt Lick Barbecue Restaurant serve local delicacies, and a stage in the concourse offers live music. The airport brings in $1.8 billion annually and has created 35,700 new jobs. Bruce Todd, who was mayor in 1991, regrets the time the city initially wasted trying to fight the base closing. His advice to mayors facing what he did: “Leave the past behind” and “visualize the future.”


The picture in Denver and its eastern suburb of Aurora on Sept. 30, 1994, the day the flag was lowered for the last time at Lowry Air Force Base, was typical of what many communities see when their military facilities close. “We had a thousand empty buildings,” recalls Tom Markham, executive director of the Lowry Redevelopment Authority. “We had abandoned runways. We had utilities that were old and in the wrong place.” The pain of losing 7,500 civilian jobs at Lowry, where the Air Force had a technical training center, was compounded five years later by the closing of nearby Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center, which had 12,000 employees. Those two shutdowns, combined with the closing of the city-owned Stapleton Airport, left heavily urban northeastern Denver and suburban Aurora with 11 sq. mi. of land in desperate need of recycling.

Rebuilding was not easy. The Air Force was slow to turn over its property, and the environmental cleanup proved time consuming. But today Denver and Aurora proudly call that land Redevelopment Triangle. The two cities are 80% of the way toward their goal of creating 10,000 jobs there and filling the area with 4,500 homes and apartments, plus 2 million square feet of offices, retail stores and restaurants worth $1.3 billion.

The community, like others, “fought very hard to keep the base open,” says Aurora Mayor Ed Tauer. “But once it became clear that the base would close, very quickly we shifted from mourning the loss to looking at the opportunity.” In short order, local leaders organized a development group and agreed on a refurbishing plan, helped along by $12 million in local, state and federal grants. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that the community is better off [than when the base was there],” says Markham. The Air Force, for example, paid no property taxes, which are currently collected on the new homes and businesses, and the military jobs that left paid less than the ones that took their place. The Association of Defense Communities sponsored a conference in Denver in June for representatives from more than 200 communities whose bases have closed or are about to close, using the Lowry redevelopment as a showcase for prospering after the military decamps.


Recovery can be easier for big cities like Denver and Austin, where millions of dollars can be generated locally to rebuild. About all Fort Smith, Ark., had in abundance was patriotic pride when the Pentagon announced 14 years ago that its Fort Chaffee Army post would be closed. Homes in the small city of about 85,000 at the Oklahoma border fly the American flag year round, and folks always welcomed the hundreds of thousands of young G.I.s who had trained at the post since the 1940s. (Elvis Presley got his first Army haircut there after being inducted in 1958.) Arkansas National Guard and other military reserve units still use about 66,000 acres of largely vacant land from the post for exercises. The remaining 6,000 acres, which contained much of the installation’s main facilities, were turned over to a municipal development authority to convert to a residential and business community.

But what the city got was a collection of eyesores: about a hundred World War II–vintage barracks and buildings with asbestos in their ceilings and yellow lead paint flaking from their walls. Most of the acreage has no water or sewer lines to support new buildings. Federal and local money to rebuild, plus add roads, has been slow to arrive; so far, only $4.2 million has been spent. “Down here the land has no value because it has no real infrastructure,” explains Sandy Sanders, executive director of the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority. The vacant post, Sanders says, wound up being a “liability because of all the old stuff that needs to be taken care of.”

But “we’re finally making lemonade,” Sanders adds. The post’s stockade has been leased to repossession companies, and the municipal development authority rents storage space in the old motor pool for boats and recreational vehicles. A massage therapist, a Greek Orthodox church and the offices of a food-processing center moved into barracks that have been renovated with indoor plumbing, high-speed Internet access and central heating and air conditioning. Earlier this year, the first major industry arrived: Graphic Packaging Corp., with a 326,000-sq.-ft. industrial complex and 400 new jobs that will make up for 350 civilian positions lost when the Army moved. And to attract tourists, Barracks No. 803 will be restored to its original look. That’s where Elvis got his pompadour clipped. Fort Smith’s recovery may take a hit in the coming round of base closings, though. This year’s proposal would spin off the 188th Air National Guard, an F-16 fighter wing situated next door to Fort Chaffee, to bases in Georgia and California.


For a community to bounce back quickly after a base closing, one thing is important: “Speak with one voice,” says Patrick O’Brien, director of the Pentagon’s Office of Economic Adjustment, which helps cities and towns rebuild when the soldiers leave. Irvine and the rest of Orange County, Calif., did not and instead spent 10 years and $100 million on ballot initiatives, public campaigns and lawsuits fighting over what to do with El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

The economic jolt to the Southern California county was negligible when the Marines decided in 1993 to move out their jets and pilots. Orange County has been a mecca for high-tech and biomedical companies. With a red-hot real estate market, the 4,700 acres the Marines left behind should have been scooped up quickly for development. But a feud broke out between regional leaders, who wanted the land to build a new international airport, and the city of Irvine, which preferred pricey homes and a massive metropolitan park. Irvine eventually won, and three years ago, the Department of the Navy, of which the Marines are part, auctioned off the land for $650 million to a developer that will build what the county calls the Great Park.

Irvine is still about five years away from realizing its dream. The Navy has estimated that it will cost $300 million to clean up the jet fuel and toxic cleaning solvents that seeped into the ground at the base. Larry Agran, Irvine’s former mayor, isn’t fazed. “We are talking about a plan for a metropolitan park three times the size of Central Park,” he says. “In terms of the big picture, [the long fight will be] seen as very worthwhile.” But the battle might not be over. The nearby city of Los Angeles, desperate for an overflow facility to relieve its overburdened LAX airport, has not ruled out a lawsuit that would force construction of an airport on the land.

Over the past four rounds of base closings, the Federal Government has spent $1.9 billion to help communities recover. Congress this fall is expected to appropriate $30 million as a first installment next year, with hundreds of millions of dollars more in subsequent years. But not every community ends up with a success story. Kittery, Maine, and nearby Portsmouth, N.H., might have a difficult time finding other jobs for the 2,300 skilled submarine-repair workers thrown out of work if the Portsmouth yard closes. That’s why most local leaders have been focused on lobbying to get their town off Rumsfeld’s list.

Yet, if history is any guide, they should be looking at life without the facility. Most commission members believe Rumsfeld is overly optimistic about the savings he will get from the closings. But past commissions have endorsed 85% of the Pentagon’s recommendations. “So even though [local leaders] are going to fight like hell to get off that list,” says the Association of Defense Communities’ Ford, “they should be thinking about a Plan B and putting together the pieces for it now.”–With reporting by Rita Healy/Denver, Hilary Hylton/Austin, Laura Locke/Irvine and Adam Pitluk/Fort Smith

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