By BILL STRAUB
Scripps Howard News Service
May 11, 2005
Local leaders usually are loath to even consider the specter of base closings because of the potential negative impact on the economy. In July 1999, faced with the loss of nearby Fort McClellan, then-Anniston, Ala., Mayor Gene Stedham told congressional overseers "the very survivability of our community is threatened."
And Anthony Principi, chairman of the nine-member commission charged with making recommendations on a new round of closures, acknowledged the experience can be like "tsunamis in the communities they hit."
But some communities can point to economic progress as the result of base closings, as serendipitous as the experience might have been. Previous rounds resulted in the shuttering of 97 facilities and the realignment of 57 others. As of Sept. 30, 2004, the Defense Department had transferred 72 percent of the 504,000 unneeded acres to other entities, primarily local communities. More than 110,000 new civilian jobs have been created on former military bases, according to the department. The Defense Economic Adjustment Program, created to aid communities, workers and businesses affected by the cutbacks, has distributed almost $2 billion in assistance.
About 85 percent of local Defense Department jobs lost as a result of base closings or realignments have been replaced, according to Pentagon data. The Hunters Point Annex Naval Shipyard in San Francisco, a victim of the 1991 round, lost 93 jobs but eventually created 1,150 in what was once considered the most depressed section of the city, near Candlestick Park. The area is now the site for light industry and several art studios. One section is being used for law-enforcement training activities.
Pease Air Force Base near Portsmouth, N.H., shuttered after the 1988 round, maintained 400 jobs at the time of its closing. It is now a site where an estimated 5,124 are employed.
Pease often is cited as a base-closure success story. In April 1989, the New Hampshire legislature created the Pease Redevelopment Commission to determine what to do with the 4,255-acre site. The area now has more than 190 businesses, several identified as industrial high-tech, and Pease International Airport, which features customs and immigration services along with scheduled passenger service, general aviation and cargo.
"There is no question that the first few years after a base closure or realignment can be extremely difficult for an affected community," said Jack Spencer, a policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank. "But many communities where bases have closed or realigned have successfully adapted through community leadership, planning and federal assistance and actually gone on to achieve higher rates of job and income growth."
A recent study by the federal Government Accountability Office found that most affected communities "have recovered or continue to recover from base closures." While that process was slowed somewhat by earlier economic downturns, the office determined that regions near closed bases were faring well when compared to the national average.
Of the 62 communities involved in the study, 69 percent had unemployment rates equal to or lower than the national average. And 48 percent experienced income growth rates higher than the national average.
The K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base in the economically depressed Upper Peninsula of Michigan, closed in the 1993 round, is often cited as the gold standard for coping with the departure of the military.
The 5,200-acre facility, once controlled by the Strategic Air Command, was abandoned in 1995.
"The anticipated impact to the area and economy was almost beyond comprehension," said a report for the Gwinn Sawyer Chamber of Commerce. "However, many individuals and agencies did not give up on Sawyer. Rather, they saw the prospect of developing a community and creating new, diverse economic opportunities."
Businesses began locating in the property in 1995, beginning with a veterinary clinic. A significant arrival came in 1996 when a major portion of the site was transformed into the Marquette County Airport. Sawyer Lumber opened a $43 million high-tech sawmill, the first of its kind in the Midwest, in 1997. It employed 107 people in March 1998, growing to 210 in January 1999. AMR Eagle, a company that performs maintenance for American Eagle, agreed to open a maintenance center at the old air base, making a 25-year commitment.
"The winds of change hit this area especially hard," the chamber report said. "But local business, government and individuals were able to alter how they think, to come to grips with reality and to adapt. Building a civilian community at this former military installation has been a tremendous challenge. We all have good reason to be proud of what's been accomplished."
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