15 Years After Base Closing, Pease, N.H. Thrives

The Pentagon's proposed military base closings have some people worried about the negative effects on local economies. But not all closings have turned out badly. Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire closed about 15 years ago, and now that community is thriving.

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This past week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recommended closing more than 180 military installations, including 33 major bases across the country. If approved, the closures would mean serious economic hardships for many communities, but not necessarily for the long term. NPR's Anthony Brooks reports on how southern New Hampshire bounced back after Pease Air Force Base was shut down almost 15 years ago.

ANTHONY BROOKS reporting:

Back in 1988, Eileen Foley was the mayor of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She's 88 now and still remembers when she heard the news. She says she was enjoying a New Year's Eve party when she got a phone call from a Colonel at Pease Air Force Base.

Ms. EILEEN FOLEY (Former Mayor of Portsmouth, New Hampshire): And he said, `I want you to come over to the office tomorrow morning at 10:00.' I went over and he said, `We will be closing.' That hit, you know. That was hard for us.

BROOKS: The Cold War was over. The Pentagon no longer needed Pease Air Force Base to house the huge B-52 bombers that were part of the country's nuclear defense system. It was the first base to go in the first round of base closures, and it hit like a hammer, draining $350 million a year from the local economy. Mayor Foley says it was tough watching Pease's 3,500 airmen leave.

Ms. FOLEY: And it was a sad thing, and we all cried. Every time that a wing went, we all cried. Yeah, we did.

(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

Mr. SAL ZONA(ph) (Barbershop Owner): Oh, it was definitely sad. There's no question about it. People wondered, you know, what is going to happen now?

BROOKS: Sal Zona, now 85 years old, came to Pease in 1956 to work as a barber on the base, one of about 400 civilian employees.

Mr. ZONA: When all the troops were here, I had 13 barbers and four beauticians. And then when the base closed down, naturally everything went away. A number of people were just wondering, `What is going to happen to the area?'

(Soundbite of automobile driving by)

BROOKS: Fifteen years ago, it was taken for granted that when Pease Air Force Base closed, it would demolish the local economy. But that didn't happen. Today on this former Air Force Base, I'm surrounded by sleek, modern office buildings with lush, green lawns that are home to more than 200 companies that run from A to Z: from A.G. Edwards & Sons to the Zoo Corporation, which employ more than 5,000 people.

Ms. RENE RADELL(ph) (Investor): And let me just show you right here. This is what we did with this building. I have music that comes through here. I have music in the men's and ladies' room.

BROOKS: Today this former base is a busy corporate park known as Pease International Trade Port. And Rene Radell was among the first major investors here. Back in 1997, Radell and her partners proposed to build an 86,000-square-foot office building at Pease on spec; that is, without the promise of any tenants. Most banks refused to lend them the money for such a risk, so they invested much of their own cash.

Ms. RADELL: Oh, they all thought we were crazy. Now you have to understand, when we came here, there were old buildings that were still up. The wing commander's building was the building that I worked out of. It was cold. It was on old green Air Force desk. They had to bring in power to give me an electric heater. I had a drywall bucket as a trash can, and a cell phone and a yellow pad.

Unidentified Man #1: Oh, great. ...(Unintelligible) you guys congratulations.

Unidentified Man #2: Thanks.

Unidentified Man #1: Good luck.

Unidentified Man #3: Thank you.

Unidentified Man #4: All right.

Unidentified Man #5: Thank you.

BROOKS: Today at Pease, Radell's group owns half of the 20 new office buildings, which house a mix of high-tech and financial service companies, health-care providers, a brewery and this brand-new barbershop--run by the very same Sal Zona, who's just as busy now as he was when the airmen were here.

Mr. ZONA: There's a dentist's office upstairs. There's going to be a dry cleaner's. There's going to be a food mall in here. It's a beautiful building. Things are just working out just beautiful, really.

(Soundbite of men's voices and brushing sound)

BROOKS: According to a GAO report, Pease has created 11 times as many jobs as it lost, the best job recovery record of any former military base. But there were challenges along the way. For example, Pease has yet to fully exploit its most obvious asset: the huge 11,000-foot runway once used by those B-52s. A commuter airline moved in in 1992, but the venture failed, and it was gone two years later. Today only a charter company and the Air National Guard use the runway, which some call the largest underused hunk of concrete in the country. George Bald, executive director of the Pease Development Authority, says the big lesson here is that it takes years to successfully convert a military base.

Mr. GEORGE BALD (Executive Director, Pease Development Authority): When you go from base closure, you kind of go downhill for a while. Most times it's not that you just turn the key and say, `OK, from now on we're going to use it for civilian purposes.' It takes a long time to make that transition back to civilian use from the military use.

(Soundbite of faint traffic sounds and chirping birds)

BROOKS: Pease had big advantages unique to its location: 3,000 acres of land, proximity to a major highway and to growing high-tech sectors in southern New Hampshire and Boston, just 50 miles to the south. The state also invested more than $18 million to help develop the site, and, most important, it set up the Pease Development Authority as an independent corporation to run it. Ross Gittell, a professor of management at the University of New Hampshire, says that political independence was the key to success at Pease.

Professor ROSS GITTELL (Professor of Management, University of New Hampshire): Because if it was totally run by state government and politicians, the short-term political pressure would have driven the planning and development process. I mean, at Pease the story was they could have had retail there right away. They could have had a strip mall there. And they said, `No, we want to bring in good jobs, well-paying jobs. We're going to have this as a true business park and a world-class facility.'

BROOKS: As communities around the country brace for another round of base closures, Gittell says that good planning and patience are among the most important lessons from Pease. Anthony Brooks, NPR News.

HANSEN: It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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