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New Spaces on Old Bases

Forward-thinking reutilization strategies can turn military base closures into surprisingly positive developments for their surrounding communities.

Aug/Sep 07
Sometime before September 15, 2011, as mandated by the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission, the 3,300-acre Brunswick Naval Air Station (BNAS) in Brunswick, Maine, is going to close. About 3,000 military personnel and 1,400 reservists will leave the area, along with about 700 military spouses employed by area businesses. For those left behind, civilian job losses are projected to exceed 2,000, pushing the area's unemployment rate to almost 10 percent. Anticipated income loss to the region, including $14 million in rent and mortgage payments when 2,300 housing units enter the market, is projected to exceed $150 million annually.

"This closure is equivalent, in Maine terms, to 10 paper mill closings," says Jeffrey Jordan, deputy director of the Brunswick Local Redevelopment Authority, which is in charge of formulating and implementing a reuse plan for the base.

Fortunately for Brunswick and about two dozen other communities throughout the United States that are currently facing a major military base closure as a result of BRAC 2005 decisions, the situation is not as bleak as it sounds. For many of these communities, the base closure may even be a blessing in disguise.

The communities on the closure list have the advantage of experience gained from four previous BRAC rounds - 1988, 1991, 1993, and 1995 - in which a total of 97 major bases were closed. A large number of these former military installations are now thriving with new residential, retail, office, educational, institutional, and industrial developments that in many cases have already more than replaced the number of jobs lost in the closure.

In Denver, Colorado, Lowry Air Force Base (BRAC 1991) lost more than 4,000 military personnel and about 2,275 civilian jobs when it closed in 1994. Now the 1,866-acre former base is a mixed-use community with more than 7,000 new jobs, and is considered a model for urban infilling and smart growth. In Phoenix, Arizona, the former Williams Air Force Base (BRAC 1993), which lost 2,300 military personnel and 728 civilian jobs, is now the Williams Gateway Airport and Williams Campus, with about 4,000 new jobs. It is home to more than 35 aerospace-related companies, including Boeing, plus an education and research facility that serves more than 6,000 college students. And there are dozens of other success stories.

The Department of Defense's Office of Economic Adjustment (OEA) manages the complex process of transitioning military properties to civilian use. According to a December 2006 OEA report, of the 73 communities that it had identified as "adversely impacted" in the previous four BRAC rounds, 72 already have or will have office and industrial parks at their former bases, and 21 have established municipal or general aviation airports.

Lessons learned from each BRAC round have helped refine the process with new, creative ways of conveying the property from the military service to the Local Resource Authority (LRA), and the OEA continues to expand its resources to assist LRAs with their reuse planning and implementation.

Visioning Process
Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, also on the BRAC 2005 closure list, will see the departure of about 620 military personnel from the Army's Communications Electronics Command (CECOM), many of whom will transfer to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Potential job loss to the area could exceed 20,000, according to Frank Cosentino, executive director of the Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Planning Authority, which is the LRA for the base. This figure includes 12,000 to 15,000 contractor jobs, plus nearly 5,000 additional civilian jobs.

"There is an enormous potential downside," says Cosentino. But he is optimistic that the three communities adjacent to the 1,126-acre base - Tinton Falls, Eatontown, and Oceanport - will reach a consensus on the best redevelopment strategy. The LRA enlisted a consulting firm to help develop its reuse plan, which it must submit to the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of the Army before the end of the year.

Hundreds of community members have participated in planning workshops and completed an extensive "Visual Preference Survey" featuring pictures of community settings and building styles. "We have insisted that people look at it holistically," says Cosentino. "Don't look at just what you think will be an adjunct to your town. Look at the entire fort property because it has to flow." Evaluation of existing buildings at Fort Monmouth - approximately 5 million square feet - is underway. "The concept is to see how they work in the context of this visioning process and what people want to see here," says Cosentino.

The Brunswick LRA is going through a similar visioning process for BNAS. Like Fort Monmouth, Brunswick is looking at the creation of a "pedestrian-friendly village" in which residential, commercial, institutional, and recreational areas will be within walking distance of each other. "We envision an integrated living, learning, and business community," says Jordan, "integrated into the Brunswick community through a network of pedestrian and bike trails, transit lines and roadways."

Consultants for the project have identified several industry sectors that would be strong opportunities for economic growth at BNAS, including information technology and data management, biomedical industries, alternative energy development, marine and aviation composite R&D and manufacturing, and general and corporate aviation and aviation maintenance and repair. A previous study determined that commercial passenger flights or cargo service would not be feasible at Brunswick, but general aviation flights, federal R&D, aerospace manufacturing, and aircraft maintenance would be possible.

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