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Former Navy Base 'Everything We Wanted It to Be'

By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
American Forces Press Service

CHARLESTON, S.C., April 19, 2005 – "Doom and gloom" describes how residents of this city felt when the Pentagon decided to close the Charleston Naval Complex in 1993.

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Jack C. Sprott, seated, executive director of the Charleston Naval Complex Redevelopment Authority, and Ryan Roberts, who serves as director for economic development for the authority, are two of the driving forces that have helped bring dozens of new businesses to the former Navy base at Charleston, S.C., closed after the 1993 Base Realignment and Closure. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA

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Jack C. Sprott, executive director of the Charleston Naval Complex Redevelopment Authority, said this assessment was understandable.

For more than 100 years, the "Navy Base," as people here call it, was an economic boon for the city, providing thousands of jobs and revenue. Next month Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will recommend another round of base closures that could affect many more communities like the one here.

Just 10 years ago, the base was home to 22,000 sailors and civilian workers who supported the big gray vessels that docked at the Navy yard's 20 piers. Now most of those ships and workers are gone.

"The Navy Base was one of the four pillars of this community," said Sprott, who has for the past 10 years worked to bring business back to the Navy facility. "So it was a panic, it really was, when we realized the Navy Base was actually going to leave.

"The community hadn't focused on redevelopment but quickly realized we had to do so," he added.

The city's first step to refocus was to form what it called the 'BEST' committee -- Building Economic Solutions Together, Sprott said.

The BEST committee was able to get state and community leaders to come up with a land-use plan to redevelop the property. It brought together the Charleston area's three main counties to provided funding as well as to look at ways to recruit industry to the former Navy complex.

The latter formed the Redevelopment Alliance. Working in conjunction with the Redevelopment Authority, the alliance was "very successful on a large scale to attracting industry to the Charleston area in a very short period of time," Sprott said.

"In about three years they had exceeded all their goals for a five-year period," he said.

Dozens of worn-down warehouses and an old rusting yellow Navy locomotive sit idle behind miles of steel government fencing -- relics of the Navy's past. But the future here can be seen in the more than 80 new industrial business and federal agencies that now occupy the base, many of which have invested millions in the infrastructure here.

Among them are an array of companies that manufacture everything from custom kitchen cabinets to armored vehicles; Defense Department agencies, such as the Defense Finance and Accounting Service and the Marine Reserves; and local agencies, such as the Disabilities Board of Charleston County.

Added Robert Ryan, who serves as director for Economic Development for the authority: "We've got as many people on this base now as there were civilians when the base was announced to be closed, and that is without developing the property."

In all, more than 6,000 new civilian jobs have been created since the base was closed, with Charleston Marine Manufacturing Corporation, which repairs and makes shipping containers, employing more than 1,700 workers alone.

The economic impact has meant more than $141 million in investments to the area from companies that occupy manufacturing, engineering and office warehouses on the base property.

Another $161 million worth of goods are produced, including exports to Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

Ryan said that much of the success in attracting new business to the base is because it has so much of offer. "This base is a long, narrow property, and its all waterfront and they don't make that anymore," he explained. "This base has everything that a town has to offer. It has open land, a landfill, housing, it has a hospital -- every single thing you can think of."

However, Sprott added, another factor in getting businesses to come here was a selection of special incentives on leasing property that his agency helped put together. Some of the leasing deals allowed companies to set up their businesses and not pay rent for a period of time, he said. Other deals offered no property taxes until businesses became established.

There were also deals based on a percentage plan, in which a business paid rent according to revenue created. "So as their revenue grew, their rental payments to us grew," Sprott said.

Those incentives are partly what brought Charleston Marine Containers Inc. here. The company, which manufactures storage containers mostly for military and government use, was one of the first industries to open its business at the Navy Base. The company now occupies more than 250,000 square feet of manufacturing space.

Phil Moore, CMCI director of sales and marketing, said his company came to Charleston because of the low operating costs here and because the base offered warehouses that were "adaptable" to what its factory needed. "We could modify them to basically what we needed," he said.

Despite the base's many potential uses and special incentives to attract new business, it wasn't always an easy sell.

Sprott pointed out that once news came down that the base was being closed, "Everything had gone downhill," as far as the base's infrastructure was concerned and money wasn't being put in to repairs.

"The infrastructure itself, the water system, the sewer system, the roads and even the condition of the individual buildings, was pretty darn poor," Sprott said.

"If you're going to bring in a private company operate a business, the toilets have to flush, they to have a road to get to their properties, and we were reaching a point where those things were deteriorating," he explained. "So a lot of money had to be spent in order to bring business to your property."

Federal grants were used to keep the facilities running, he said. But a tour of some of the base's 1,574 acres shows that more repair work is needed. Large chunks of land remain undeveloped because the Navy still owns much of the property, Sprott said. "You don't start redevelopment until you have ownership of the property," he said.

When that happens, the authority has big plans for the finished development, he said. The southern end of the base will be part of a port expansion for the Port of Charleston. The middle portion will be part of a shipyard and available for use by private industry and federal agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security. The upper northern end will be transferred to the city for a residential and commercial development.

"It's going to end up being nice," Sprott said, "and just about everything we wanted it to be.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imagePhil Moore, director of sales and marketing for Charleston Marine Containers, Inc. talks to a customer inside the factory where his company builds storage containers. Moore said his company came to Charleston, S.C., because of the favorable incentives that base-redevelopment officials offered. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA  
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