County Economic Development Director Underscores Challenges in Finding New Uses for Closed Bases

County Economic Development Director Underscores Challenges in Finding New Uses for Closed Bases

A new round of base closures may allow the Pentagon to redirect spending on unneeded facilities into higher priority requirements, but advocates for a sixth BRAC round shouldn’t promote the process as one defense communities can readily recover from, says the head of an economic development organization helping to address a realignment in south central Pennsylvania.

“No one should think it’s an easy process,” said L. Michael Ross, president of the Franklin County Area Development Corp., which has been supporting the Letterkenny Industrial Development Authority in its efforts to convert almost 1,500 acres to commercial use since Letterkenny Army Depot was realigned following the 1995 round of BRAC.

“It is very challenging, once a decision to close or downsize is made, to understand your options, your timelines, where the resources are going to come from,” he told Defense Communities 360.

Ross’ comments come in response to multiple op-eds written by analysts at Washington-based think tanks in the past month urging lawmakers to authorize additional base closures that would allow DOD to eliminate some of its excess infrastructure. While the commentaries typically acknowledged the short-term pain experienced by closure communities, they indicated economic recovery is the norm.

Ross said he found one op-ed’s implication that prior to a BRAC round communities should make preparations for the possibility a neighboring installation will be closed or realigned particularly frustrating.

“That can’t be the first community response,” he said. A community’s highest priority approaching a base closure round will be to shield it from a closure or the loss of an activity, and also to attract new missions. “The fight typically is what we can be doing to defend ourselves in every way possible. … For the most part, you can’t focus on [redevelopment planning] until a final decision is made,” Ross said.

The underlying challenge associated with reusing BRAC properties is the protracted nature of the process, he emphasized. Following the realignment of Letterkenny, the LRA did not begin receiving any of the property declared excess until after 2000, and currently it has obtained a little over 1,200 acres. The LRA expects to receive the remaining 200 acres from the Army over the next two years.

“Twenty-one years later and we are still waiting,” Ross said. The primary obstacle slowing the transfer of property at Letterkenny has been the need for the Army to clean up soil contamination.

To be sure, the LRA has successfully converted the Army property it has obtained to date into the Cumberland Valley Business Park, he noted. The reuse project has 47 tenants which employ about 1,000 workers in a variety of industries. Ross attributed much of the transition’s success to the LRA’s ability to obtain the depot’s excess property through a no-cost economic development conveyance, fortuitous timing and the fact that the community needed to cope with realignment rather than closure.

It hasn’t hurt that the Army is the business park’s largest tenant, leasing space that it previously gave away. The military’s need for depot-level maintenance surged after the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are many examples of communities that successfully turned a shuttered base into a key economic asset. “But it is important to understand [there are] a lot of dynamics that make it a very challenging situation and usually a long-term [process],” he said. “We are 21 years out, [and] we have a ways to go.”

One of the challenges confronting any redevelopment authority is the expense of maintaining a vast campus of buildings and utilities. The condition of those assets can vary greatly, and even if they are functional from a military standpoint, they may not be useful in a commercial setting.

“It’s not hard to run into several millions of dollars a year just to maintain [the property],” Ross said. And that figure doesn’t even cover the cost of making improvements.

Converting a closed installation devoted to industrial use into a commercial or mixed-use real estate project requires a number of factors to fall into place. “A lot of planning and getting the right developers willing to make the commitment” are needed, he stressed, as well as a favorable location and advantageous market conditions. “It’s not simple.”

Dan Cohen
Dan Cohen
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