Military Base Closures and the Towns They Leave Behind

Military, U.S. Army, marching, Dover Air Force Base
Military, U.S. Army, marching, Dover Air Force Base

On Sept. 8, 2005, the Department of Defense's Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) gave President George W. Bush a list of 20 major military installations that it had determined were no longer necessary for the nation's defense. The president signed off on the list, and despite tepid opposition, it passed through the House of Representatives. By the end of the year, it was enacted, and a deadline was set: On or before Sept. 15, 2011, the 20 bases would shut their doors.

When a military facility closes, the effects ripple throughout the surrounding community as families lose their neighbors, businesses lose their customers and workers lose their jobs. In a thriving city, a closure can be an adrenalin shot to the local economy as hundreds of acres of land are suddenly made available for municipal growth and expansion. But for many communities -- especially in rural or suburban areas -- closure can translate into years of struggle, as municipal planners strain to fill the empty spaces that the military leaves behind.

A Change in Identity

In addition to empty buildings and abandoned property, the military often leaves behind extensive environmental damage. The Air Force and Navy both rank among the nation's top 100 polluters, and many former bases have become Superfund sites. Even among those that aren't placed on the national cleanup priority list, extensive remediation is often required, with the military, the Environmental Protection Agency or private cleanup groups required to step in to remove or remediate contaminated soil and groundwater.

The identity and character of base areas can also be transformed by the arrival of new companies, employers and organizations. One of the first steps in closure is what's known as "public benefit conveyance," in which government agencies and nonprofit groups may be given large swaths of the former base. These can be turned into a variety of facilities, from wildlife refuges to vocational schools, homeless shelters to prisons.

For communities facing a sudden spike in unemployment, the new jobs can mean the difference between prosperity and oblivion. Yet, they often come with a high price: Prison jobs or the sudden arrival of hundreds of homeless people can permanently change the personality of a community.

The same goes for private industries. Communities that once boasted about being an Army or Navy town may find themselves transformed into university towns, call-center towns or industry towns. In addition to economic impact, this can also change the way that a community sees itself, its mission and its basic character.

Focusing on the Costs of Closures

Starting today and continuing over the following weeks, DailyFinance will take an in-depth look at the economic and social impacts of base closures on the civilian communities that surround them. From Maine to California, Georgia to Colorado, we'll talk to planners on both sides of the town/base divide and explore the effects of closures in the past. For those bases about to close, we'll take a look at what might happen in terms of job losses, the impact on surrounding businesses and what might happen to the property and the people left behind.

Most of all, we'll focus on the costs -- emotional, economic and environmental -- that a base closure can have on a town whose identity is inextricably tied to a military facility that no longer exists.

See also:
Denver's Lowry Air Force Base Defies the Odds
A Maine Town's Long Recovery After Losing Loring AFB
Will Military Base Closures Mortally Wound Local Real Estate Markets?
Military Families Face Harsh Realities When Forced to Relocate
Cleaning Up the Toxic Legacy of Closed Military Bases
California's Castle Air Force Base Learns a Hard Lesson in Reinvention