In fact, I was unable to find much useful information at all regarding successfully transitioning a community's economy away from its base and toward something new that could be sustainable after the military left town. It appears that although the military's cut-and-run strategy for cost control led to a deluge of panicky articles and editorials, surprisingly few unemotional, sober analyses had been conducted of the long-term effects of base closure.
So I thought that if I could study, in detail, a couple of similar-size communities that had handled base closure—one well, one poorly—I might begin to build a roadmap for success for small, base-dependent communities facing a similar fate. This roadmap could then be used as a starting point for current leaders of BRAC'd bases to shape their facilities into something that could support a long-term transition for their host communities.
I looked for two areas that had been economically dependent on their bases prior to closure, and where the closure had occurred at least ten years ago. The reason for this was that was enough time for the areas to be impacted in a long-term way by their BRAC experiences. I intentionally limited my sample size so that I could conduct a through analysis of each community's transition process and interview as many civic leaders as possible.
In the end, I settled on two communities: Selma, Alabama, which hosted Craig Army Airfield until its closure in 1980; and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the home of Pease Air Force Base until it closed in 1991. Both had depended economically on their former bases, which had been closed long enough to transition their economies away from the military. And both had a number of former community leaders who spoke frankly about the steps and missteps they experienced as they tried to guide their areas through base closure.
By combining in-depth interviews with a case-study approach, I was able to discover several keys to both Selma's and Pease's economic fates. Some were intuitively obvious—the need for strong leadership during the transition process, the pivotal role that state and local governments play during base closure, and the importance of synchronizing the military's transition plan with any competitive advantage that the host community may have. Other points could only be learned through trial and error—such as the hidden dangers of base housing for host communities after the base leaves. Overall, the examples of Selma and Pease offer lessons for similar communities facing base closures today.
Selma: Closure Gone Wrong
In 1977, Craig Air Force Base was targeted for closure as a cost-cutting method during one of the early precursors to BRAC. Craig was a small training base in the central Alabama town of Selma. Employing roughly 1,000 people, it was relatively small by DOD standards. Because of its location in a small Southern town, its relative economic weight was far greater than that of most bases two to three times its size.
During our extensive interviews, Jaime Wallace, retired president of the Selma Chamber of Commerce and a key player in the town's economic development after Craig, offered critical perspective. He noted that that because Craig had been a flight-training installation, the 1,000 former employees had been a highly educated and motivated group whose positive impact on the community extended far beyond their salaries.
These citizens cared about their home in Selma, participated in civic clubs and organizations, and inspired their civilian counterparts to take a long-term view of the town's future. When the Air Force decided to move them out there was a distinct void in citizenship that the BRAC never measured nor accounted for. And that void set the stage for economic ruin in this small Southern community.
Wishing for Tornadoes
When Craig was shut down, 524 units of military housing that had previously been the exclusive domain of military members were instantly available to the entire Selma economy. Jaime Wallace said that in hindsight, he wished a tornado had wiped out the base housing. Instead, those 524 units flooded the town with an overabundance of small, single-family dwellings. This greatly increased the supply of all single-family homes in the area, with a corresponding drop in demand. In short order, that translated to a drop in housing values of around 40 percent.
The surplus of housing led the Department of Housing and Urban Development to step in. They converted the 524 units into federally subsidized housing for low-income families. As the jobless and underemployed flocked to Selma, their numbers changed local statistics, and soon the town had a skyrocketing unemployment rate. Also, burglaries and other crimes usually related to poverty increased. At one point in 1985, one in five Selma residents was jobless, as the unemployment rate exceeded 22 percent.
Next the American Civil Liberties Union sent in legal teams to advise Selma's new citizens of their rights to homeownership. The net effect for Selma was that every one of the Air Force's 1,000 educated residents who improved the overall quality of life was replaced with a person in need of help who strained the local economy. These figures never made any BRAC report.
Reaching for the Absent Hand
The plan to close Craig began in the late 1970s, under the Carter administration. The closure committee did have a plan for the local economy. It included bringing in Beech Aircraft to support the fleeing base. But the 1980 election saw a change in administration, promises disappeared, and Beech Aircraft sent a much smaller contingent than originally planned.
To make matters worse, in the crucial years preceeding Craig's closure Alabama senator James Allen passed away while in office, and senator John Sparkman decided to retire. Alabama's remaining congressional delegation was then forced to sacrifice Craig to ensure that Huntsville's Red Stone Arsenal remained open. So Selma was left with a combination of empty promises and a distinct lack of advocacy in the halls of Congress.
Later, when general aviation became deregulated in 1982 and Beech Aircraft was forced to shut down its Selma plant, that lack of congressional advocacy proved nearly fatal for the town's economy. Now the community was left with no real economic oversight.
In fact, instead of receiving any sort of financial cushion from the government during Craig's closure, the federal, state, and county governments all cherry-picked the best assets on the base and left behind the scraps. For example, one four-story building on Craig had served as the Officer's Club and billeting quarters; it was in near-pristine condition prior to base closure. The State of Alabama immediately seized it for use as a criminal justice center. But then the state never followed through with plans for the building, and instead let it sit idle for more than 25 years. Finally it was declared uninhabitable.
Thus, the community of Selma had to endure not only the economic impact of losing more than 1,000 contributing families, but also the indignity of watching its best assets be squandered by the very organizations that existed to protect it.
How to Get It Right
One of the finest examples of a base closure actually helping the local long-term economy is former Pease Air Force Base, New Hampshire. Pease AFB was a 4,255-acre complex 50 miles north of Boston and 50 miles south of Portland, Maine. The base was blessed with a long, 11,000-foot runway and a series of interstate highways nearby. Today it employs about 5,500 people, surpassing the 5,100 military and civilians it had employed in its military heyday. Yet, according to in-depth interviews with George Bald, executive director of the Pease Economic Development Authority during the crucial reconstruction years, all of its seemingly natural advantages were not the reason for its success. Strong leadership and state support made it happen.
Start with Good Governance
One of the first things Pease did to improve its economic outlook was to develop good governance. In 1989—two years before the base closed—the State of New Hampshire enacted a law establishing the Pease Redevelopment Commission (PRC) to guide the civil plan. The PRC and the New Hampshire legislature then teamed up during the following year to draft a new law creating the Pease Development Authority (PDA) and providing a $250 million bonding capacity to prime the pump of economic development.
The PDA was a seven-member board with powers to implement the base redevelopment plan. One of the more interesting aspects of this guiding organization was the single requirement to become a member of it: No elected officials allowed. This ensured the PDA was an organization that emphasized business—not politics—and that it would thus be able to take a long-term, logical view of planning. That fact alone was key in combating the emotional outcries of thousands who lost jobs as the community transitioned its economy to something more lasting.
The PDA then began a series of town meetings to solicit the community's concerns regarding base closure. The board knew that local involvement was crucial for community buy-in, but they also knew that the leadership needed to be grounded in good business practices and not emotional politics. PDA members were both fair and firm: they listened to concerns, and then promptly closed the doors on hearings so as not to aggravate the local hysteria.
The board also had the power to rezone Pease property almost entirely free of oversight. This combination of good business leaders and special powers was an interesting solution for long-term success.
Prime the Pump
The first concrete step was to make the facilities look like a world-class business park. The PDA invested heavily in renovating the entranceway to turn the military look of the property into something that business leaders would be comfortable with. The trend continued as base housing was demolished, thereby avoiding any sudden decrease of property values because of a housing surplus. After tearing down what had formerly been city blocks of military housing, commercial interests looked at flat properties with good access, and they could easily envision office space and small industrial facilities here.
Finally, the PDA leased the initial properties far below market value to attract businesses into the complex. In exchange for low rent, commercial interests agreed to finance rebuilding with their own money rather than state dollars.
Now Pease was looking not like a former military base, but like a business park—at a fraction of scheduled costs. In fact, initial estimates had called for close to $200 million to recondition the hangars, outbuildings, and central steam plants into spaces that could be used for commercial purposes. By pushing some or most of this cost to the lessees, the PDA had to borrow just $18 million of the $250 million that the State of New Hampshire had authorized. Currently that loan is being repaid with profits from the initial commercial partners.
The Power of Strong Leadership
Next, a series of controversial decisions became necessary. As we have seen, PDA members were given authority to rezone the land as they saw fit, which allowed them to shape the new Pease. Many citizens and community leaders were desperate to replace the lost base jobs as quickly as possible, and the PDA faced significant pressure to support the first commercial interests that called.
To its credit, the board resisted. The members fought community hysteria and diversified, with clients across the business spectrum. In this way the PDA ensured that economic success was not tied to any one industry or company. Selma had faced such a situation with Beech Aircraft.
In fact, even though the PDA had the power to rezone even wetlands into commercial property, as of 2005 Pease had redeveloped more than 1,000 acres—with just a quarter-acre of a wetlands rezoned.
Selma and Pease offer examples that installations facing closure today should study. Our military leaders can and should help to shape these resources into something that can support a community's long-range economic vision.