Some US Towns See Profits, Not Losses When Bases Close

THE towns and cities across America hit by the Pentagon's new round of proposed military base closures and realignments might take heart from Alexandria, La.

``There is life after base closings. In the end, the community can be better off,'' asserts John Grafton, who heads the public agency that took over Alexandria's sprawling England Air Force Base when the military abandoned it in 1992.

Transformed through foresight and timely planning, the one-time fighter base now houses a civilian airport and an industrial park with 15 occupants, including a truck-driving school and a 65-bed hospital. A commuter airline moves in next year and talks are continuing with more potential tenants.

Pentagon officials cite Alexandria as a sterling example of how communities can avoid the potentially devastating job losses and business downturns wrought by the closures and reductions of bases mandated by the United States military's post-cold-war ``build-down.''

There are now more civilian jobs than the 1,000 lost when the base shut. The England Industrial Airpark and Community pumps $35 million into the local economy. About 820 people work at the airpark. Another 1,700 jobs have been generated in the surrounding area of central Louisiana. Local authorities, businesses and the 50,000 residents are enjoying the fruits of healthy retail sales, growing tax revenues and new housing.

``We are now catching a glimpse of what we will be able to do for our children's future,'' says Mr. Grafton.

The Pentagon on Tuesday unveiled its proposed fourth round of base closures and cutbacks since 1988. In it, Defense Secretary William Perry is recommending that 146 installations be shut or ``realigned.'' Of the total, 33 are described as major closures.

Thousands of jobs will go. Hardest hit would be Texas, which could lose 6,981 jobs; Alabama, with 4,946; New Mexico, with 5,138; and Pennsylvania, with 3,600. Some states will gain jobs transferred to their bases from the doomed facilities.

Perry sent his list to the independent Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC), which has until July 1 to review and submit it to President Clinton. The president, followed by Congress, must accept or reject the list in its entirety.

Affected communities can lobby BRAC to spare their bases during hearings to be held over the coming months. Perry defended his recommendations at the first hearing yesterday.

Perry said Tuesday that refining the list ``has been a painful process for the Department of Defense. It's been a painful process for the communities involved. But it is necessary.''

He warned that even with the 1995 closures - the last currently authorized - more infrastructure reductions would be needed to keep pace with military personnel cutbacks. He said he would press Congress to authorize another round in three or four years.

The savings from the BRAC process are crucial to Perry's plans to boost spending on military modernization. The first three BRAC rounds, in which some 70 major bases were shut, coupled with the 1995 closures are projected to save $6 billion annually beginning in 1999. Until then, savings will be offset by the huge costs of decommissioning bases and cleaning up toxic wastes and unexploded ammunition. Those costs forced the resource-tight Pentagon to scale back this year's closures from what was originally planned.

The Pentagon has been working to streamline the process for communities to convert bases into job-producing centers. Defense officials say more improvements are required.

But Paul Taibl of the Washington-based Business Executives for National Security, which has studied the BRAC process, says that the key to averting an economic disaster is for a community to move swiftly to take over a doomed base. ``The sooner a community gets together and starts planning for reuse [of a base],'' he says, ``the sooner it will profit.''

Unfortunately, most communities concentrate on lobbying BRAC to spare their bases. But, Alexandria backs Mr. Taibl's conclusion. After hearing rumors in 1990 that the England Air Force Base might be slated for closure, a group of Alexandria officials and businessmen began formulating a response. They were ready when the base appeared on the 1991 BRAC list.

While lobbying the BRAC to keep the base open, the group pursued an aggressive takeover strategy under which the area's localities agreed not to fight each other over shares of the 2,280 acres. The state legislature was persuaded to put the base under a new regional authority with the power to lease out buildings and issue development bonds.

The authority succeeded in taking over the complex even though the Air Force will not formally give up title until March 28.

Alexandria is not the only story of its kind. Consider Rantoul, Ill. Rather than face economic disaster, the town of 18,000 took over Chanute Air Force Base quickly when the military shut it in 1993, scuttling 6,000 civilian and military jobs and the area's main economic engine. Today, 48 companies are located at the complex, employing about 900 people. That number is forecast to double over the next five years.

The effort has still not covered the economic losses from the base closure. But officials say they are making great progress.

``We're doing way better than we expected,'' says Robin Neal Kaler, the Rantoul Chamber of Commerce executive director. ``We thought we would end up just an abandoned community with tumbleweeds.''

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