Lessons from a Closed Military Base

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As the Pentagon plans to close a number of military bases and installations, many towns are scrambling to come up with redevelopment plans. The Army left California's Fort Ord in 1994, and its conversion for civilian use has been slow and expensive.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Pentagon plans for base closures have spurred many local officials to rally to protect their installations. Others are scrambling to come up with redevelopment plans. More than 60 major bases and 775 smaller installations could be closed or downsized. Many of the towns might take a lesson from places such as California's Ft. Ord on the central coast 115 miles south of San Francisco. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports that since the Army left Ft. Ord 10 years ago, its conversion to civilian use has been slow and expensive.

RICHARD GONZALES reporting:

Since the says of World War I, the US Army viewed the vast stretches of waterfront acreage near Monterey as an ideal site for cavalry maneuvers, beach landings and especially live-fire artillery ranges.

Unidentified Man: All teams are in position, shot has been primed. Do we have area clearance?

GONZALES: Now, before the Army can completely transfer 28,000 acres to civilian hands, it has to locate, isolate and detonate thousands upon thousands of unexploded shells, grenades and mortar rounds left in the sand and chaparral.

Unidentified Man: Fire in the hole, fire in the hole, fire in the hole.

GONZALES: A technician calmly alerts his co-workers of the impending explosion.

(Soundbite of explosion)

GONZALES: Right now, the Army and its civilian contractors are focusing on opening 8,000 acres for hikers and bicyclists. But no one can say how long that will take. Gail Youngblood is the environmental coordinator for the local Base Realignment and Closure Office.

Ms. GAIL YOUNGBLOOD (Base Realignment and Closure Office): This is just one of those types of work that you have to say, `OK, this may take me 10 years, this may take 15 years, but we will be able to make it safe.'

GONZALES: Those delays are what frustrate local community leaders who have been waiting to get their hands on Ft. Ord since the Army moved out in 1994. The biggest holdup is recovering the old ammo, but a close second is dealing with the extensive water and soil contamination caused by the Army's longtime practice of dumping oil and chemicals. Most experts say the cleanup could cost $1/2 billion.

Today much of Ft. Ord looks like a ghost town covered with knee-high weeds and hundreds of boarded-up Army barracks heavily laden with lead and asbestos. But solutions don't come easily, especially since 63 different local, state and federal agencies are involved in the effort to reclaim the property for civilian use. Michael Houlemard is the executive officer of the Ft. Ord Reuse Authority.

Mr. MICHAEL HOULEMARD (Executive Officer, Ft. Hood Reuse Authority): For most communities--and that's also true here at Ft. Ord--it takes a couple of years just to be familiar with the acronymical linguistics of doing military base reuse. That whole effort requires a PhD in understanding bureaucracy to make that work.

GONZALES: Just ask Darrell Shote(ph) how the conversion is working.

Mr. DARRELL SHOTE (Entrepreneur): Truthfully, being born and raised here, I miss the Army. (Laughing) I really miss the Army because you didn't have the issues you got.

GONZALES: Shote is an entrepreneur who took over a small grocery store seven years after the Army left. He's just making ends meet selling beer, chips and fresh sandwiches.

Unidentified Woman: You want cheese?

GONZALES: Shote dreams of a day a new housing development opens just across the street from his store, a plan that's been stalled by a variety of environmental lawsuits.

Mr. SHOTE: The salamander is the big issue that's holding everything up right now. Unfortunately, nobody can find a salamander out here. And that's what's holding us, that's what's killing us, that's what's really hurting us.

GONZALES: But there are definitely signs of progress at Ft. Ord.

(Soundbite of carpentry work)

GONZALES: Carpenters are busy framing million-dollar homes in a new subdivision. Already up and running is a new campus of the California State University system. And there are ambitious plans for retail, conference facilities and more housing. Michael Houlemard, the man in charge of redeveloping Ft. Ord, says the work has already generated 1,800 new jobs.

Mr. HOULEMARD: The military installations, once they're closed, can offer this nation an opportunity to think through how you build in environmentally conscious, in sustainable and synergistic ways by building housing and jobs and services and commercial opportunities, and do it in a conscious way that also produces those opportunities that we've been missing in the rest of the community.

GONZALES: But Ila Mettee-McCutcheon, the mayor of the nearby city of Marina, says it's taken far too long to get the job done at Ft. Ord.

Mayor ILA METTEE-McCUTCHEON (Marina, California): Probably the worst example of base closure, at least in the history of the Army.

GONZALES: The mayor's city will nearly double in size with the land it receives from the Army. But it will cost millions of dollars just to tear down old buildings before construction can start. And she's frustrated with the competing demands of other cities, environmental regs and litigation.

Mayor METTEE-McCUTCHEON: There've been really many great things accomplished. It just took too long. It was too unwieldy. And there's still much to do.

GONZALES: Such as three large and ambitious housing and commercial developments that are still on the drawing board 10 years after the Army left Ft. Ord. Richard Gonzales, NPR News.

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