Stateline Story

BRAC Targets 33 Major Military Bases

Hours after the Defense Department announced which military facilities the Pentagon had put on its shutdown list, state leaders began scrambling to save the installations, especially in Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, and South Dakota where major bases with thousands of jobs were targeted for closure.

But rather than fight the Pentagon -- an effort that rarely works -- veterans of post closures said states are better off channeling their energies into a backup plan. That way, experts said, an area can more quickly recover from the slew of problems that often follow a closing -- everything from lingering radioactive waste to skyrocketing unemployment rates.

"Obviously, this is not something you want in your state, but this is not a death sentence," said Tim Ford, who heads the Association of Defense Communities, a Washington, D.C. based consortium that fosters relationships between military bases and local leaders. "You can fight the closure, but at the same time, there has to be a Plan B."

Overall, the Defense Department slated 33 major bases for shutdown, including the New London Submarine Base in Connecticut, Fort McPherson in Georgia, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine and the Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota.

Click here for a full list of the facilities affected.

Military experts, state officials and business leaders said Plan B's can take a variety of forms, ranging from complex state tax incentives and grants to simple gestures such as offering to coordinate redevelopment plans.

In Georgia, a retired Army brigadier general has spent the last six months coordinating a state initiative aimed at dealing with a worst-case scenario, an effort lauded by his peers as one of the best in the country. Even if state lawmakers didn't expect base closings, they still can create contingency plans before the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commission -- who will examine the Defense Department's recommendations -- gives its report to the president in September, he said.

They just have to hustle. Once a facility is scheduled for closure, officers installation leaders have two years to begin shutdown and six years to leave, federal officials said.

"Everybody that we talked to that's been through this has said: 'Don't wait; get your act together,'" said Philip Browning, who heads the Georgia Military Affairs Coordinating Committee. "The earlier you get together, the better off you'll be."

The difference can be striking. In Massachusetts and South Carolina, the legislatures acted quickly to create agencies to oversee redevelopment and settle disputes among the local communities affected by previous base closings. The result has been a pair of new economic zones -- at Fort Devens, Mass. and Charleston Naval Complex, S.C. -- that the BRAC commission has recognized as examples of strong rebounds.

"The closing had a tremendous impact on us, and it was all gloom and doom for awhile," said Jack Sprott, executive director of the Charleston Naval Complex Redevelopment Authority. "The important thing is that we also saw the writing on the wall."

In South Carolina, Sprott said state lawmakers took the important step of taking control of the redevelopment, even overriding the local zoning boards to make sure certain parts of the new facility included a shipping port.

A lack of help can have just as much impact. When the Long Beach Naval Complex was slated for closure in 1991, the statehouse of California was embroiled in serious economic problems. The result was little or no help from Sacramento -- a sting still felt in the southern California community.

"There wasn't much help there," said Randy Gordon, president and chief executive officer of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. "The state didn't come to us knocking on our doors saying: 'Hey Long Beach, we know you lost that naval base and we want to help.' They had troubles of our own."

Gordon estimated thatLong Beach's economy lost $1 billion as a result of the closing. It is still trying to recover civilian jobs lost at the base.

To avert a déjà vu, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) created a commission to lobby in support of California's remaining 62 major bases while also preparing to jump into recovery mode if bases do get ordered to shut down. It is a vitally important topic for the state, which has lost 19 major bases over the last four rounds of BRAC in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995. It cost tens of thousands of jobs.

Ford said California 's model is a good one to follow. He said other states also should consider transforming the committees used to fight BRAC closings into oversight committees that can be used to coordinate recovery throughout the affected state.

Still, some government researchers caution base closings aren't always disasters. In a report released by the Government Accountability Office in January, federal officials said redevelopment efforts have brought back 72 percent of the almost 130,000 civilian jobs lost when 73 major facilities were shuttered over the previous four rounds.

The figures, however, address only on-base civilian jobs and not those lost in the surrounding communities where businesses thrived off the bases.

"If you're out in the country somewhere, in a rural area, you're going to have a more difficult time," said James Reifsnyder, assistant director within the GAO and main author of the report. "The worst ones are the ones right outside the gate. They're the ones that are going to suffer. The small towns are the hardest hit of anyone."

To help small towns, redevelopment experts said states can do a number of things. Michael Houlemard, who oversees the Fort Ord Reuse Authority in California, said statehouses can help most through education.

"Local communities that go on their own are drinking from a fire hose," said Houlemard, who noted that the area around Fort Ord saw unemployment numbers spike into double digits after the closings. "Just understanding the (federal) acronyms alone is enough to confuse a local agency."

Houlemard also recommended that states act as a go-between for federal and local agencies while finding ways to give preferential treatment -- in terms of grants and tax incentives -- to communities and businesses affected by a base closure.

Still, there is one area where a state's power is limited: the environment. Under federal law, the military is responsible to clean up its sites, an expensive process that can take years. According to the GAO, the military has spent $8.3 billion through fiscal year 2003 recovering these sites, which face everything from lead contamination to live grenades.

No place understands this problem more than the community around Fort McClellan in Alabama, which was slated for closure in 1995. Environmental officials estimated clean-up there will take at least another decade and could cost exceed $200 million to clean up problems such as landfills and radioactive waste.

But military officials said states can play a role, especially with paperwork. Often, state governments and the military disagree on what level of cleanup is needed, creating a back-and-forth mountain of bureaucracy that can delay redevelopment.

To counter that difficulty, Ron Levy, Fort McClellan's BRAC environmental coordinator, suggested a little communication. "You can stand around and say, 'You're doing this wrong,'" he said. "Or you can say, 'You're doing this wrong, but you can do this to get it done.'"