Yes, There Is Community Life After Military Base Closures

Cities, towns find efforts to attract new activities are tough - but can pay off

WHEN residents near Fort Ord in northern California first heard in 1990 that the Army base was to be closed, they launched a full-throated fight to keep the soldiers in place. Once it became inevitable, though, that the base would shut down, they focused on ways to reuse the sprawling seaside site.

The result has been a barracks-full of ideas: a new college campus, research park, agricultural center, golf resort, theme park. While officials expect to turn the military loss into an economic gain, getting there has involved squabbling over jurisdiction and dealing with everything from cleaning up unexploded bombs to protecting the endangered black legless lizard.

The problems and promise that have confronted these residents symbolize what dozens of communities across the country will face as the federal government moves forward with a sweeping new round of base closures.

Although many are fighting the lastest list of proposed shutdowns, some are also beginning to wonder if there is life after the military. The answer, according to those who have studied the issue, is yes, but the transition is often slow and difficult.

"When all is said and done, there usually will be more jobs than when the base was open," says Keith Cunningham, an analyst with Business Executives for National Security, a private research group that recently studied 24 bases ordered closed in 1991. "But people have to be patient."

Patience isn't something many politicians and community officials believe they can afford when the economy has been in a half nelson. Thus some plan to press their case before the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, an independent panel that has until July 1 to review the Pentagon's latest proposed shutdowns.

That list, released by Defense Secretary Les Aspin on Friday, calls for closing 31 installations nationwide, including eight in California. In a bow to the state's economic plight and political importance, Mr. Aspin dropped three California sites from the list (McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento, the Monterey Presidio, and Long Beach Naval Shipyard). This cheered local officials but some still think California is taking too much of a hit.

Lobbying the commission isn't a completely futile approach. The panel removed four bases from the closure list during its 1991 review.

"The commission is not a rubber stamp," says David Soherr-Hadwiger, a Unversity of New Mexico political scientist who worked for the 1991 panel. "It is worth making a pitch."

Once the commission has made its final recommendations, however, analysts suggest stop trying to fight the shutdowns. Mr. Cunningham says the earlier communities can begin planning redevelopment, and come up with a consensus on how to reuse the bases, the more likely they are to succeed.

A Pentagon study of an earlier wave of base closings showed that the 158,000 new jobs created through redevelopment more than compensated for the 93,000 positions lost. More bases are closing today, however, and communities have less money to put into redevelopment.

Of the 24 closings under way Cummingham studied, the most popular reuse is to try to lure another federal agency to the site. Turning military airfields into commercial airports is also a popular idea. Others establish industrial or office parks and new housing.

Just agreeing on what should be done takes effort. At Fort Ord, a local reuse committee has drawn up a preliminary plan that includes setting up a campus of the California State University System, a science and technology park, agriculture center, and light industrial and retail activities.

Planners have had to identify large areas of the 44-square-mile base to be set aside to protect endangered species, such as the Smith's blue butterfly. Cleaning up 41 toxic sites will take until 1997 or 1998, and 8,000 acres of unexploded shells must be managed.

Despite the challenges, some involved in the Fort Ord effort are confident it will eventually yield an economic bonanza. Joseph Cavanaugh, coordinator of the local reuse committee, says the new college campus alone will make up for the jobs and spending lost by the military's departure.

"We're trying to make the redevelopment here a national model," he says. In the short term, he adds, there will be difficulties. "In the long run, we will be better off."

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