Finding new uses for bases that the military closes

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The grumble of bulldozers blends with the cry of hovering gulls, while inside Charlestown Navy Yard's Building 42, workers rush to tack down carpet in model apartments.

In about a month, if all goes according to plan, the first residents will move into the historic naval year here -- in what was once a huge waterfront machine shop.

Closed in 1974, the 105-acre shipyard is being recycled into a chic residential and commercial neighborhood. The first 367-unit apartment house, dubbed Constitution Quarter, is slated to open early this summer.

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But the shipyard is more than just another redevelopment plan; it's part of a nationwide effort to find new uses for decommissioned military bases.

"When the federal government closes a base, not only does the community lose jobs -- in this case Charlestown and Boston -- they also leave behind the carcass of what was there before," Says Paul Kelly, project director for Charles-town at the Boston Redevelopment Agency (BRA).

But creative planning is helping to conjure up new uses for places like Charlestown. Other example include:

* Moses Lake, Wash., where Larson Air Force Base has been parceled up into an industrial park, community college, housing development, and municipal airport.

* Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., where Kincheloe Air Force Base has become an industrial park and 1,200-unit housing development.

* North Kingston, R.I., where Quonset Point Naval Air Station and portions of the adjacent Davisville Seabee Base have become a large seaside industrial park. (Officials say the project doubles the amount of prime industrial land available in that small state.)

The Pentagon's Office of Economic Adjustment (OEA), which helps communities rocked by base closing, estimates about 151 major military installations were closed between 1969 and 1979. But OEA officials say it is fairly rare for a base to be completely closed. Small portions are often held back for military-related uses. For example, Davisville still has a contingent of Seabees on part of the base.

And in some cases, even a recycled base is still closely tied to the military. For example, the major industry at Quonset Point -- the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics Corporation -- is building components for nuclear-powered submarines for the US Navy.

Some communities absorb the jolt of a base closing without falling out of kilter. However, when an area has grown economically dependent on military paychecks, a closed-down base can be devastating.

"People are upset when a base closes; it's a shock," says Robert Rauner, acting director of OEA. "The typical reaction, of course, is to get hold of a congressional delegation to put pressure on to stop the closure."

But in recent years, local officials and entrepreneurs have begun seeing dollar signs in surplus bases.

"Our experience has been that if a facility comes up for disposal, there usually are enough commercial interests to see it as an opportunity," Mr. Rauner says. "Then it's recognized as a valuable asset."

Many old base are self-contained cities, with streets, houses, and commercial buildings that are easily converted to civilian uses. They are often well-suited to the needs of industry, with transportation links and utilities already in place.

Some bases leave behind miles of runway that can be done over into municipal airports. This is what happened in Laredo, Texas, and Middletown, Pa., where local officials latched onto Air Force bases when they closed and created new international airports from them.

And on the bottom line, surplus bases are a good deal. The government sells the property at a mutually agreeable price or gives it to the local community for public uses. For example, a large chunk of the Charlestown Navy Yard was given to Boston gratis, one portion for a park, another to create an historic monument area.

However, when a major installation hangs a lock on its gate, the immediate impact on the surrounding community can be severe. Even when a community moves fast, says Rauner, it may take several years for the transition from military to civilian use to occur.

"The interest of the community is not to be passive," he says. "but to take action to put the facility to use -- like they did at Charlestown."

More than 5,000 civilian jobs were lost when Charlestown closed. When the shipyard is fully spruced up, officials expect 1,700 to 3,000 new jobs to be in place. But an OEA survey of 91 bases closed between 1961 and 1979 found that, in many cases, more civilian jobs are created after the military plug is pulled than existed before.

The main concern at Charlestown, officials say, was to get the property back onto the tax rolls as fast as possible. Every year of disuse, compounded by vandalism, would mean a more difficult -- and costly -- rehabilitation job.

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