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Why a Base-Closing Commission Is Needed : The state must get ahead of post-Cold War economic curve

March 19, 1993

As with many of the base-closing announcements around the state, the announcement that the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station was a goner was shocking. The base has stood for decades as a reliable fixture in the mix of military, high-tech and aerospace facilities that made so much of the region's growth possible after World War II.

And yet, as stunned political and business leaders come to grips with the likelihood that the base will shut down some day--as will seven others in the state--it is not a moment too soon to think realistically about what will come next. The state must have a high-profile strategy for addressing future uses for these bases.

El Toro got wind of its fate as California grappled with recession, and as President Clinton acknowledged the state's vital importance to the U.S. economy. The bitter irony for El Toro was that the news came as the base prepared for this week's 50th birthday party celebration, which highlighted the central role the base played in Orange County's development.

The early talk is of creating office complexes at El Toro, or a commercial airport--an old idea getting fresh attention. But the fact is, all the residential development, transportation arteries and industrial parks that sprang up around the base did so under the expectation that the installation would be there for the long haul. So it's not possible to turn back the clock to an earlier day when non-military uses could have been addressed adequately and without causing disruption. Already battle lines are forming as politically savvy and well-heeled adversaries line up on opposite sides of the commercial airport idea--the hot proposal of the day. Whatever is decided, somebody will be unhappy.

A bigger question is whether such local planning decisions will serve the recession-battered state's larger strategic economic needs. Circumstances differ, of course, and the prime locations of many of the bases are likely to present both obstacles and opportunities. Also, many have serious environmental problems that could affect or significantly delay development.

That's why a comprehensive strategy is needed for bases like El Toro--to ensure that the state's economic interests are served even as the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, the President and Congress review the list. Already some good reuse proposals are being floated, such as building a new state university campus at Ft. Ord near Monterey. Gov. Pete Wilson's Office of Planning and Research has been working extensively on both defense conversion and base-closing issues.

But it would help if Wilson went a step further, to the appointment of a bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission to look at all the options for these bases and then to make recommendations to Washington. These findings obviously could serve local, regional and state planning objectives by enlisting the state's best minds.

And there would be another purpose: The state could use these recommendations to lobby Washington for a fair share of federal funds earmarked for sensible, rather than pork-barrel, job retraining and defense conversion.

California 1. Treasure Island, San Francisco 2. Naval Air Station, Alameda 3. Naval Aviation Depot, Alameda 4. Naval Hospital, Oakland 5. Naval Supply Center, Oakland 6. Mare Island Naval Shipyard, Vallejo 7. Marine Corps Air Station, El Toro 8. Naval Training Center, San Diego

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