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Base Closure Communities Get DoD Help

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 25, 1999 – Defense Secretary William Cohen knows about base closures, from both sides.

DoD closed Dow Air Force Base in 1968 when he was a city councilman in neighboring Bangor, Maine. "It hurt when they closed Dow Air Force Base," he said. "People thought the end of the world had arrived. They gave us the base for a dollar, and we still didn't have enough money to plow the runways."

In 1991, when he was a U.S. senator from Maine, the Base Closure and Realignment Closure and Realignment Commission recommended closing Loring Air Force Base -- the largest employer in Aroostook County, Maine. The recommendation was accepted.

Cohen said the people of Aroostook County went through the same jitters as those in Bangor. The difference between the two closures could be measured not only by the decades between them, but also by a stark change in DoDs attitudes and resources.

Dow had no base reutilization office when closed in the 1960s. DoD took the dollar and blew town. Whatever happened next -- and all the planning, organizing and execution in- between -- was up to the people of Bangor.

DoD learned from the experiences of Bangor and other communities where bases closed in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Paul Dempsey is the chief of the Office of Economic Adjustment in the Pentagon. His office is responsible for helping communities affected by base closures recover lost jobs. He said the born-again process consists of three parts: organizing, planning and implementing. The office is the focal point of all the federal resources that can help communities weather base closings.

When Loring closed, its base reutilization office was a going concern. The people of The County, as Aroostook is known in Maine, had resources and help Bangor only dreamed of.

"DoD does provide financial and technical support for organizing and planning," Dempsey said. "We assign staff to work with local community leaders and reuse organizations."

The staffers help local leaders design a base reuse organization structure. They help communities write grant proposals and point them to agencies where they can get grants to start reuse planning.

DoD also points to other federal agencies that can help communities. These include the departments of Housing and Urban Development, the Interior, Education, and Health and Human Services; and the Small Business and General Services administrations.

The third step -- implementing the plan -- is still up to the communities, but DoD stands ready to offer advice and help with further planning.

Dempsey said there are some lessons that the BRAC communities can share. "First, don't waste any time," he said. "Philadelphia fought the closing of the Navy yard there. They did not develop a reutilization committee until late in the process.

"Charleston [S.C.] fought closing their Navy yard, but they also started a reuse committee. While one committee was fighting the closure, another was making contingency plans in case the base actually did close. Once they lost, they were able to flip immediately. They didn't miss a beat." Charleston has found more tenants and created more new jobs than Philadelphia even though its yard closed later, he said.

Another aspect many communities overlook is a base closure can enhance their quality of life. "The communities get ballparks, open space for parks, gymnasiums and golf courses," he said. "The communities can also get the residential housing on a base, and once that's sold or rented, they get property taxes they never got before."

Dempsey said the communities should tailor their reuse plans to the base. "Take stock of the facilities on the base," he said. "What industries need those facilities? What makes the area attractive? Part of the [reuse] job is selling your community and the facilities there."

Finally, he said, everyone concerned must agree to the redevelopment plans. Communities and groups that fought over who had control of redevelopment had problems replacing jobs, he said.

If Congress approves two new rounds of base closures, the communities that would be affected would probably do even better than those in the four rounds since 1988. Congress has approved legislation allowing DoD to transfer -- or convey -- facilities and buildings to local communities.

"With the economy booming, now is the time for communities to reutilize military bases," Dempsey said. Overall, the bases closed in the four rounds of base closures have regained 60 percent of the jobs they once had, he said. "This is a pretty good number. This growth has really happened only in the last four years."

A recent General Accounting Office study shows that incomes in base closure communities are rising faster than the national average and unemployment is lower.

Post-base closure communities are learning another lesson: It is better to have many different companies producing jobs than one big employer.

"These communities will never have the problem of the main employer leaving again," Dempsey said.

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