Colorado Bases Offer Hope to Communities Facing Military Closures
DENVER Big SUVs packed with children and loaded with groceries cruise where bombers once touched down at the former Lowry Air Force Base, not far from an aviation museum showcasing the site's military history.
Elsewhere, dozens of Air Force buildings have been converted into civilian housing, and the old Lowry headquarters has been turned into loft apartments. The former base liquor store? That's the new Lowry Community Christian Church.
More than a decade ago, the last round of military base closings cost the Denver area both Lowry and the Fitzsimons Army Hospital -- facilities that boasted 11,000 jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in military spending.
But don't cry for the Mile High City: Both former bases are booming.
Some 20,000 people live, work or study at Lowry, the site of several thousand new homes since 1998. Fitzsimons, in the midst of a $4.8 billion overhaul, has become a medical center that will employ 18,000 by 2010.
"There is life after closure," said Tom Markham, executive director of the Lowry Redevelopment Authority and president of the Association of Defense Communities.
As the Pentagon and White House weigh another round of base closures, Denver and other cities across the nation offer hope for communities about to lose military jobs, dollars and prestige.
"There are people who will tell you, maybe not on the record, that it might have been the best thing for a base to close," said Jack Sprott, executive director of the Charleston, S.C., Naval Complex Redevelopment Authority. That city lost 22,000 military and civilian jobs, but has since added 6,000 at the site.
Concord, Calif., actually lobbied to get its naval base on the closure list this year, and succeeded. It hopes to build 13,500 homes and create 15,000 jobs over the next 30 years on the site of the Concord Naval Weapons Station.
A Government Accountability Office report in January found that "while some communities surrounding closed bases are faring better than others, most have recovered or are continuing to recover from the impact" of base closures.
The report, citing Defense Department data, said nearly 72 percent of local civilian jobs lost because of base closings have been replaced.
"Don't spend all your money trying to prevent a base closure," said Harry Kelso, a Richmond, Va., consultant on base closures. "You should be preparing for the closure and gaining the expertise how to best use the property."
At California's McClellan Air Force Base, there were already 3,000 commercial jobs at the site on the day the base closed.
"The initial reaction of a community is woe with us, but there are a few visionaries out there who can see past the immediate problem," said retired Air Force Col. Keith Caudle, the base's last commander who now works on the site as the regional director of AmeriCorps.
Lowry is often cited as a textbook example of converting a military base, but the process has not been easy or cheap.
Some neighbors balked at development plans. The Air Force wanted $38 million for land the city had donated for the base. At the time, Colorado was emerging from an early 1990s recession.
The extent of environmental contamination after 57 years of military operations was unknown. The base infrastructure was not up to civilian standards.
"We had a thousand empty buildings. We had three abandoned runways. We had utilities that were old, in the wrong place, or the wrong size, and usually all three," Markham said. "We inherited a utility map that looked like spaghetti. With the federal government as a landlord, there are no such things as easements and right-of-ways."
The government has paid $82 million to clean up Lowry, which was not the only base to require extensive decontamination. More than 30 military facilities shut down since 1988 are on the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund list of the nation's worst toxic waste sites, including McClellan.
The redevelopment authority, meanwhile, spent $550 million preparing the site for housing and commercial development, financed by bonds and bank loans. It is estimated the project poured $4 billion into the local economy -- a billion more than Lowry would have over the same period.
The authority eventually allowed 4,500 new homes, with land set aside for a town center, schools, office buildings and parks.
The value of any one home was not expected to exceed $350,000, but several have sold for $1 million and one under construction is valued at $2 million. Developers sold one block at a time to prevent the cookie-cutter feel of suburban sprawl.
The base's steam plant now holds luxury lofts. One aircraft hangar is an ice rink.
"You feel the history," said Amy Ford, who lives at Lowry with her husband and 2-year-old daughter. "It really has the feel of a base. It is a different Denver."
Source: Associated Press