Military Base Closures Not Catastrophes

Communities that avoid panic and quickly seek alternatives are likely to weather the storm and find new enterprises

By , author of "Base Closure and Reuse: 24 Case Studies," is a policy associate with Business Executives for National Security, a nonprofit organization of business leaders.

CONSIDER the plight of Charleston, S.C. With a strong record of job creation and economic development, Charleston was a Southern city on the rise. Then the federal government landed on Charleston like a ton of bricks. On March 15, half a dozen Charleston naval facilities were recommended for closure by the Pentagon.

After three months of painstaking analysis, the Base Closure and Realignment Commission has released its final list, and Charleston's biggest facilities are still on it. But rather than fostering angst and recrimination, this should be seen by Charleston and cities like it as a rare opportunity for economic revitalization.

Military base closures do not reduce the affected communities to modern-day ghost towns. In fact, a recent study of 24 communities facing military base closures, conducted by Business Executives for National Security (BENS), suggests that most communities on the final base "hit list" will eventually emerge better off if they follow certain steps.

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Step 1: Recognize the inevitable. Over the next five years active Army divisions are scheduled to be slashed 45 percent, Navy surface ships 37 percent, and Air Force fighter wings 39 percent. Total personnel will be reduced by nearly a third. Given these cuts, maintaining the 274 major domestic military bases is impossible.

An ability to adapt to the future is the key to a successful base closing transition. Many communities that had initially fought to defend their bases turned their energies full-throttle toward redevelopment once the decision was final. Alexandria, La., site of England Air Force Base, was among them. Once the list became final, Alexandria stopped fighting and started replacing the jobs. As a result, the community has already created hundreds of jobs on the former base.

Other affected communities, Philadelphia, Pa., among them, sued the Department of Defense - a less successful strategy. It is no wonder that private industry is already moving onto England Air Force Base, while the future of the Philadelphia facility remains mired in court, without a publicly supported reuse plan.

Step 2: Organize. Since most bases lie within several different governmental jurisdictions, it is essential to build a regional consensus on reuse and to empower a local authority to spend money and make decisions on redevelopment. Outside Eaker Air Force Base in Arkansas, the communities of Blytheville and Gosnell obtained federal funds and became the base's caretaker by establishing a joint redevelopment authority early in the process.

Step 3: Plan. A comprehensive redevelopment plan should realistically assess the strengths and weaknesses of the base itself and of the community. Quick development of a plan can sometimes yield quick results. Fort Ord, Calif., on the 1991 base closing list, has already attracted significant interest from a California State University branch campus with 25,000 students and more than 3,000 jobs.

A truly comprehensive plan will examine a variety of uses for the base. During the last base closing round, many communities focused on one primary reuse at the expense of the other job-producing uses on the excess land. Often this has led to poor land management. Austin, Texas, successfully avoided this problem by assigning a task force to develop plans for the 900 acres not used by the new municipal airport.

Step 4: Be flexible. In an effort to replace jobs as soon as possible, communities develop short-term strategies at the expense of long-term development. Myrtle Beach, S. C., for instance, is pursuing a short-term industrial development plan that may preclude the long-term development of a two-runway airport at the site.

Other communities take a more realistic approach. To its credit, the Wurtsmith Economic Adjustment Commission, after conducting a regional assessment, discovered no need for another civilian airport in northern Michigan. Wurtsmith is now developing a retirement community on the base.

The bases closed this year are not the first and won't be the last. As more communities go through the process, successful reuse of military bases should become the norm. Perhaps, by the end of the process in 1995, communities will complain, not that they were on the list, but that they were left off.

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