City Copes With Airbase Closing

Portsmouth and state of New Hampshire hire Bechtel Corporation to plan redevelopment. MILITARY CUTBACKS

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

PEASE Air Force Base is the first of 83 military installations across the country slated to close under defense cuts made by the federal government early in 1989. By the winter of 1991, the gates to this Portsmouth, N.H., base - where Air Force One now lands when President Bush retreats to his home in Kennebunkport, Maine - are expected to close.

This leaves little time for the city and state to plan how to reopen these gates for civilian workers. Currently, the base employs about 13,000 people and carries 25 percent of the city's economy. But 1991, when the Air Force pulls its planes, people, and money out, might bring what one observer called a ``psychological and economic depression.''

Redevelopment plans

Recommended: Default

``When the base closes, a worst-case scenario would be an area-wide economic tailspin,'' says city councilor Charles Noon, who says other cities have had trouble recovering after a base closes.

Yet the location and existing capabilities of Pease - including one of the largest runways on the East Coast - make it in many ways ideal for redevelopment.

Soon after the base closing was announced, Portsmouth, Newington (a town bordering the base), the state, and the Air Force formed the Pease Redevelopment Commission to map out the future of Pease.

The commission hired the Bechtel Corporation of San Francisco to come up with development ideas for the land that would best benefit local communities as well as the state.

Among the development possibilities Bechtel produced in an early draft of the study were a processing/manufacturing industrial complex, a passenger transportation hub, an airplane retro-fit park, and a tourism/cultural arts/community center.

The air-related plans appear most likely, since the base is already geared for these uses.

Observers say that Bechtel has as much to lose as Portsmouth does if redevelopment takes a bad turn. Cities facing base closings around the country have this area under a microscope, and if Bechtel wants more similar contracts, it must deliver the goods here.

Some longtime locals are suspicious of what they see as an overblown state role on an issue of such strong local concern.

``When the state got involved, Portsmouth lost the game. We're more observers than participants,'' says Michael Dunbar, a local author and city councilor.

In early November, the state legislature drafted a bill that would scrap the current Pease Redevelopment Commission and erect in its place a stronger entity that could speak and act with more influence on redevelopment issues. Bearing the same name, its director, in addition to the current representatives, would be appointed by the state.

According to an editorial in the Portsmouth Press, the new commission ``would exempt the base from local zoning and permiting, and would specifically allow real estate, banking, and development interests to run the commission, with, in our view, limited conflict [of interest] provisions.''

``In short,'' the editorial continued, ``the draft could be interpreted to say that the airbase will be used to balance the state budget, while we provide many of the services, handle the traffic, and submit to whatever plans the state and Bechtel may have to develop the land. ... We will have to accept whatever these interests ... dream up for our land.''

``It's a bigger issue than that,'' responds John Byrne, a local businessman who was appointed by the state Speaker to sit on the Pease Redevelopment Commission. His hometown of North Hampton, a community about 10 miles from the base, will be hard hit by the closing, he says. And so will many other surrounding communities. ``There is no secret state agenda,'' Mr. Byrne says.

The vision of the state stealing Portsmouth's land for their own interests, Byrne says, ``is a figment of the locals' imagination.''

Meanwhile, the federal government is placing money on the table for redevelopment planning. In early December, the Federal Aviation Administration agreed to fund $572,000 of the airport-related part of Bechtel's plan for Pease. The Office of Economic Adjustment pitched in with a $150,000 grant to the city.

Mayor Katy Podagrosi of Rantoul, Ill., where the Chanute Air Force Base is scheduled to close in 1993, is keeping close tabs on Pease. Her city may be hardest hit of any when Chanute - which employs 20,000 people, and provides 65 percent of the local economy - shuts down. She is expecting federal aid for Rantoul's redevelopment.

When Portsmouth city councilor Charles Noon traveled last summer to five areas that had faced previous airbase closings, he found some sobering lessons.

Grim reminders

Though several cities professed successful redevelopment, Mr. Noon says the slow redevelopment - often taking decades - still fell short in the sites he visited: Lincoln, Neb.; Duluth, Minn.; Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.; Bangor, Maine; and Roswell, N.M. Successful closing would mean commerce and industry filtering onto the land the government either sells back to the city or cancels the lease on, providing jobs and revenue equal to what the base supplied.

Although the redevelopment of the Duluth AFB is considered the most successful one, the city is still recovering. ``They hired a hot-shot developer who gave them a federal prison farm,'' Noon says. ``But there are no taxes and much of the land isn't being used. They didn't hit the target at all - only 40 jobs were created to replace hundreds lost.''

``This is serious if we don't do it right,'' he adds. ``That's what these cities told us: Make it happen right away, or what happened to us will happen to you.''

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