05/08/05 — Closure not just 'locking the gate'

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Closure not just 'locking the gate'

By Matt Shaw
Published in News on May 8, 2005 2:10 AM

If Seymour Johnson is on the Pentagon's list for either closure or realignment, a jury of nine could decide its fate.

The BRAC Commission convened last week and is expect to receive the list of recommendations this week. The members plan to visit the targeted bases, talk to local leaders and hold regional public hearings before issuing their own verdict.

The commission is chaired by Anthony J. Principi, former secretary of veterans affairs, who has promised to be sensitive to local concerns.

It would take a vote of at least seven of these members to change a Pentagon recommendation. That's a change from past BRACs when a simple majority was enough.

The commission is required to submit its recommendations to President Bush by Sept. 8. The president could approve the list as is or ask for changes. Either way, by November, Congress will get a final list, which it can either approve or disapprove but cannot change.

Even if Seymour Johnson is chosen for closure, the process could take years.

The Air Force lost five installations after the 1995 BRAC, four of which closed in 1997 and a fifth in 2001. Several of its realignments also weren't accomplished until 2000 and 2001.

Converting an Air Force installation from military to civilian uses is a complex process that involves the Department of Defense, other federal agencies, and state and local government, among others, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Air Force's Real Property Agency. "It's not a matter of taking down the flag and locking the gate."

Once Congress approves a base's closure or realignment, the community is expected to form a local redevelopment authority, which would include city and county officials, businessmen and others. This authority will work with the Air Force Real Property Agency to plan for the eventual civilian use of the base.

But these conversions are often stalled by the need for environmental cleanup.

The previous BRACS have closed just over 500,000 acres of military installations, but about 28 percent of the land was still held by the Department of Defense as of Sept. 30, 2004, according to the Government Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress. Nearly all of the remaining acreage needs cleanup, due to chemical, fuel and other soil contamination or unexploded ordnance, before it can be transferred.

Through 2003, the Department of Defense had spent $8.3 billion on cleanups, but it expects to spend at least $3.6 billion more. That's before this year's closures are added. Those delays have hampered many areas' recovery from a closure.

The previous BRACs have cost nearly 130,000 civilian jobs, but about 93,000 replacement jobs, or 72 percent, had been created on converted bases as of October 2003, which is the latest data available from the Department of Defense.

Those figures do not include jobs lost or created in the civilian communities surrounding the bases.

A Government Accounting Office survey earlier this year found that 70 percent of BRAC communities had unemployment rates that were at or lower than the national average. In about half the communities, per capita income was growing slower than the national average of 2.2 percent a year.

The Department of Defense lists some "success stories" on its BRAC Web site. For example, the former Charleston Naval Base in South Carolina is being used by about 90 private, state and federal entities, which have created 4,500 jobs. Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin, Texas, became the hub of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, which opened in May 1999 and created more than 3,660 new jobs.

-- Some of the information for this article came from several Web sites, including those of the Department of Defense, BRAC and the U.S. Air Force.