In the early 1950s, when the Navy re-opened a 1500-acre, war-time air base in Brunswick, Maine, residents of the small, coastal community were less than thrilled. The ensuing influx of hundreds of sailors and airmen, along with the resumption of flight operations, drew a less-than-welcome response from the quiet, picturesque town.
Relations became so strained, a former naval officer at the base recalls, the commanding officer and town officials only communicated through intermediaries. But the base commander eventually hit on a plan to win over public opinion. He ordered that all base personnel be paid in cash — in $2 bills.
“Once those $2 bills started circulating through the town, things started getting a lot better as far as relations went,” recalled Rick Tetrev, a former officer at the Brunswick Naval Air Station, who is now a member of a local task force to save the base from closure.
Now, as the Pentagon begins another round of military base closings, no one needs to be reminded of the economic benefits these facilities provide to local communities. Communities targeted in the latest round of closures will begin the difficult struggle of lobbying to keep their local base open. If they fail at that, they'll begin the even more difficult task of coming up with alternate uses for these sites to replace the thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of revenue that will be lost.
On Friday, the Pentagon recommended that the Brunswick Naval Air Station be "re-aligned," cutting about 2,400 jobs — or about half of the base's military and civilian workforce. While Brunswick avoided the worst-case scenario of a closure recommendation, it's not hard to see why the Pentagon considers it ripe for downsizing. As a mainstay of Cold War military strategy, the base was tasked with keeping an eye on the movements of Russian submarines in the North Atlantic. It's mainstay was the P-3 Orion, a long-range, four-engine turboprop designed 47 years ago.
But Brunswick is now the last active-duty military airfield in New England; the next closest is McGuire Air Force Base in southern New Jersey. State and local officials trying save the base argue that it is still ideally suited for the modern mission of coastal surveillance to support the Department of Homeland Security.
"It's beyond the realm of reality to understand how they could recommend the only remaining active-duty airfield in the Northeast to be realigned" at a time when the nation needs to bolster homeland security, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said Friday.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said at least some of the P-3 Orion squadrons would be relocated to the naval air station in Jacksonville, Fla.
Officials working to head off the cutbacks — the state’s second largest employer — have seen this movie before: Brunswick has been on the list of potential cutbacks and closures during each of the previous rounds in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995. Those four rounds of base closings eliminated some 20 percent of U.S. military facilities, cutting annual defense spending by about $7 billion a year for net savings of roughly $29 billion so far.
But taxpayer savings have exacted a price from the 73 communities that lost bases. Some 14 years after the process began, only 72 percent of the estimated of 130,000 jobs lost have been recovered, according to a January, 2005 report by the General Accountability Office. Of 62 communities studied in the report, 30 percent had unemployment rates that were higher than the national average.
Part of the reason for the slow recovery is that it can take years to transfer property once a base has been closed. Of the 504,000 acres of former military bases closed since 1991, about 28 percent of that land has still not been transferred (though more than half of that has been leased.) Some 10 percent of the total has been held up mostly because environmental hazards remain — everything from unexploded ordnance to toxic chemicals. Some $8.9 billion has already been spent on clean-up, and it will take another $3.6 billion to finish the job, according to the GAO.
Now, dozens of communities with vulnerable bases are bracing for the economic impact. The Pentagon has said it expects to save another $7 billion a year from the current round of closings. Last week, Anthony Principi, the head of the nine-member Base Closure and Realignment Commission, which will review the list of targeted bases, said the closings "will be tsunamis in the communities they hit."
Larger communities, with more diversified economies, tend to recover more quickly form the loss of a military base. But for small towns or rural areas — where the military is virtually the only game in town — economic recovery can be tough, according to Patrick O’Brien, director of the Pentagon's Office of Economic Adjustment, which works with communities to redevelop closed bases.
“A lot of times these installations are the equivalent of small, medium to large cities unto themselves,” he said. “And to absorb an additional city’s worth of infrastructure into an existing community can be a very challenging prospect for many communities — even the most sophisticated and the most well-off communities.”
O'Brien's office has already spent close to $2 billion to help communities get through the economic dislocation of losing a major military facility. For many communities, the first step is to look for ways to re-use the existing facilities or adapt them to institutional use such as a medical facility, he said. But many towns with bases that have already survived earlier rounds of closures have already been looked at alternatives and found them to be unworkable.
If Brunswick had been closed instead of downsized, its obvious re-use would have been as an airport. With two 8,000 foot runways and a new $8 million air traffic control tower, the base handles some 24,000 landings and takeoffs a year. Over the past two years, over $100 million has been invested in upgrading the facility, including a new $34 million hangar.
But town officials looked at the idea the last time the air station was targeted for closure in 1995. Just 25 miles up the Maine coast from Portland, there isn’t enough commercial passenger traffic to support a second airport, according to Tetrev. And air freight shippers weren’t interested, he said, because they need to be based at airports with commercial flights that can provide backup cargo service in emergencies. Now, with so many other closed air bases converted to other aviation-related uses such as repair facilities, coming up with an aviation-related use would have been even tougher, he said.
“In the early round of (base closings), all the aviation facilities that closed down sucked up any of the low hanging fruit,” he said.
(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)