The Long Wait

Military communities likely will have to wait years to see any economic benefits from base closings.

Members of the Concord, Calif., City Council recently did something few local government organizations ever do: asked the Defense Department to shut down a military base in town.

"Most communities fight to keep their bases open, but ours is effectively closed," Concord City Manager Ed James told the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year. "There is no job loss here. There's nothing out there but cows grazing."

In the late 1990s, the 12,800-acre Naval Weapons Station Concord became a ghost town after the Pentagon decided to mothball the munitions distribution port, which is located on Suisin Bay, about 35 miles northeast of San Francisco. The base, once home to thousands of workers and a major West Coast port for shipping munitions, was left with a caretaker crew of 60 civilian employees and 75 personnel in an Army support battalion that sometimes uses the base's port to ship ordnance overseas.

City officials believe the base's waterfront land is worth as much as $1 billion and could be used for new businesses, housing and parks. But they and other local government leaders might want to read a January 2005 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO-05-138) about how communities fare once bases are closed. They might not receive property right away-if at all.

Base realignment and closure decisions can take up to six years to implement if everything goes as expected, but a federal law requiring bases to be environmentally safe before they are transferred often lengthens the process. Since 1988, the Pentagon has held four base-closing rounds-the last one a decade ago-but more than 25 percent of the land on which the closed bases sit (140,000 acres) remains in the hands of the Defense Department.

Of that land, about 49,000 acres are still awaiting reclamation, which can carry an enormous price tag. For example, the cost of restoring almost 1,800 acres at McClellan Air Force Base in California is estimated to be $772 million, while cleaning up about 14,000 acres at Fort Ord, a former Army training base in the state, could cost $321 million. As of the end of 2003, the Defense Department had spent $8.3 billion cleaning up BRAC bases.

The Pentagon also has taken advantage of laws that allow it to hold on to land and lease it out. About 91,000 acres of land at former BRAC bases are still owned by the Defense Department and are leased to tenants ranging from other federal and state agencies to small businesses. As Defense spending has tightened, the military services have increasingly found leasing an attractive revenue-generating option.

Even when bases are handed over, it generally takes time for communities to recover from the shock of losing military jobs. GAO's analysis of Defense Department numbers shows that about 30 percent of the 130,000 Defense civilians jobs lost in past BRAC rounds still had not been recovered by communities as of the end of 2003.

The Pentagon has repeatedly said it has learned from past BRACs and expects transfers of land and economic redevelopment to go much faster at bases targeted for closure in the 2005 round. Officials at Defense's Office of Economic Adjustment note that since the first BRAC round, the time it takes to transfer properties has been cut by almost two-thirds. And they say local communities have done far more advance planning than in past rounds for how they'll redevelop local economies if bases are closed.

Back in Concord, local leaders look forward to the day their base is permanently closed. They talk about opening a thriving commercial port where military munitions were once loaded. As an op-ed writer noted in a local newspaper, "Concord Marina has a nice ring to it." But it may take some time to realize that dream.