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Inside Politics

Communities still feeling past closures

By David E. Williams
CNN.com


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CNN's Jamie McIntyre assesses the impact of the suggested closings.

To cut costs, the Pentagon proposes closing military bases.
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Bases on closure list

• EPA: Closed bases on toxic list
• Bases adapted over time
• States vow fight for Guard bases
• Closings' political ramifications
Proposed closings timeline

By May 16 -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gives Pentagon's recommendations to the base-closing commission.
By September 8 -- After holding public hearings, visiting bases, collecting data and possibly making changes, the commission gives its report of recommended base closures to President Bush.
By September 23 -- The president will accept or reject the list in its entirety.
45 days later -- Congress has that amount of time to reject the recommendations in their entirety, or they become binding.
Source: U.S. Defense Department, The Associated Press

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(CNN) -- Military officials predict that the latest proposed base closings will make the armed forces more flexible and efficient, while shaving billions of dollars from the Pentagon's budget.

But the changes will come with a high cost -- especially to communities that have hosted the facilities. Anthony Principi, the head of the nine-member Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC), compared the recommendations to last December's natural disaster that devastated tens of thousands, saying the closings "will be tsunamis in the communities they hit."

The Pentagon's suggested 33 major bases and many more smaller facilities are part of the first major military alignment in a decade.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the changes would save the Pentagon more than $5 billion a year and produce a net savings of $48 billion over 20 years.

A recently released study by the Government Accountability Office found that many communities were still recovering from the closures announced in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995. The GAO is the investigative arm of Congress.

The military closed 73 bases in the four rounds and cut 129,649 jobs, according to the report. Those cuts saved the Pentagon an estimated $29 billion through 2003 and was expected to save about $7 billion per year after that.

More than 2,800 of those jobs were at Fort Ord, California, which was closed in 1991, according to the GAO. The closure also pulled the cash spent by about 15,000 soldiers and their dependents from community along with other temporary and contract jobs, said Michael A. Houlemard, the director of the Fort Ord Reuse Authority.

"It took a payroll that was half a billion dollars in size out of the community," Houlemard said.

Monterey County, the home of Fort Ord, was one of four communities that had double-digit unemployment in the first seven months of last year, according to the GAO.

"The individual communities had significant financial losses. The city of Seaside wound up closing its doors one day a week because they didn't have enough staff to cover everything," Houlemard said. "The city of Marina had to reduce staff by 10 or 11 people."

The base sits on Monterey Bay, not far from Pebble Beach and other northern California attractions. The average house sells for more than $600,000, according to Houlemard.

"A rather hot real estate market, but getting access to the property is the problem." Environmental issues -- including an almost 6,000 acre munitions range that has to be cleaned up -- and other bureaucratic hurdles have slowed the transfer.

The facility has attracted a new campus of the California State University Monterey Bay system and about 4,000 students. About 1,800 jobs have been created on the site as well, he said.

Mississippi County, Arkansas, which was home to Eaker Air Force Base, also struggled with high unemployment. "We had depended on the base for years and it was gone," said Joe Gurley, who was a judge in Blytheville, Arkansas, when Eaker was closed in 1991.

Gurley, the head of the redevelopment effort at the base, said that much of the rural community's jobless rate was high before the base closed -- mainly because of fewer farm jobs.

According to the GAO report, about 775 permanent jobs left with the base, but Gurley said that about 500 have been replaced with child care, trucking, food packaging and aircraft maintenance companies. The airstrip has been turned into a general aviation airport.

Base housing has also been reused. The single-story duplexes have been converted into the Westminster Village of the Mid-South, a retirement community, and 75 townhouse units are being rented out.

"As far as making use of a two mile long runway and all those facilities that supported it, the runway and the rest of the base, we have not been able to do that yet," said Blytheville Mayor Barrett Harrison.

The community was able to attract two steel mills that created hundreds of good paying jobs. One plant opened a few years before the closure and the other came in afterward.

"We're the second largest steel producing county in the nation," Harrison said. 'Best thing that ever happened' The GAO estimates that about 110,000 jobs, almost 85 percent of the jobs lost nationwide have been replaced by redeveloping the sites.

Aurora, Colorado, and the Denver area lost Lowry Air Force Base in 1991 and Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center in 1995. "We felt that Lowry was so important to the military and the community that we didn't believe it could close," former Aurora Mayor Paul Tauer said. "We thought we could save it.

"The odds are against any community that is on that list." Once the closure was final, the community began working on a plan to use the space. Some of the buildings were converted to civilian uses, such as an ice rink, an aviation museum and space used by a community college.

The rest were torn down to make room for new houses and retail space. The GAO said the 2,275 jobs were lost in the closure (Tauer says it's closer to 4,000) and that 5,666 have been created.

When Fitzsimmons made the list, Tauer said the city was ready and had a plan together before the facility even made the list.

Jill Farnham, the interim executive director of the Fitzsimmons Redevelopment Authority, said the community still "fought the closure as hard as it could."

The city was able to work out a deal with the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, which leased the base's main hospital building. The center also agreed to move its medical school and hospital to the site.

"That was remarkably fast to start bringing an alternative use to the site," she said. "And by the time the flag came down in 1999 (when the base officially closed) we had new construction going on and had property transfers negotiated with the military department."

She said the deal "didn't replace the jobs instantaneously, but (it) certainly replaced the hope." Farnham said a children's hospital is under construction on the base and negotiations are also under way for a Veterans' Administration hospital.

"At Fitzsimmons, this closure that the community fought tooth and nail is now the best thing that ever happened to the city of Aurora," she said.

She said the projects have created 5,300 jobs and that officials expect that number to grow to about 32,000 once the projects are completed.


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