VICTORVILLE — Last December, the Wild Weasel flight crews that soared to fame knocking out Iraqi radar during the 1991 Persian Gulf War locked the gate on George Air Force Base and walked away.
Their departure rendered their longtime military home a ghost town, complete with tumbleweeds rustling against the chain-link fences. It also left this High Desert community in San Bernardino County locked in a tug of war with a neighbor over control of the base's valuable real estate.
George Air Force Base--slated for phaseout in 1988 in the initial wave of closure announcements as the Cold War began to fizzle--was the first major U.S. military installation to close since the late 1970s.
The experience has been a turbulent one, and it suggests that communities in California are likely to face a frustrating, messy ordeal as they attempt to convert their military bases to civilian use.
Victorville's struggle serves as a warning that, despite years of preparation and noble intentions, passionate disputes can derail the best of plans. Experience shows it can take a decade or more before life returns to normal.
Many of the bases facing closure are on choice property--including several on waterfront--and hold enormous potential for business development or conversion into parklands and housing.
Yet, in many cases, officials attempting to devise smooth transitions and replace lost jobs and paychecks find themselves instead battling one another and the military bureaucracy.
"There is life after base closures, but it's clearly not as simple as it has been made out to be by the Pentagon," said Michael Closson, executive director of the Center for Economic Conversion, a nonprofit group in Mountain View that advises cities and states on base transitions.
Defense Secretary Les Aspin announced last month that eight military installations in California would close, setting off emotional save-our-base scrambles among legislators and community leaders. Along with those targeted in 1988 and 1991, that brought the total number of bases to be shut to 150 nationwide, including 18 major installations in the Golden State.
The announcements have left communities scurrying to ensure their future vitality as they confront economic devastation with the pullout of the military.
For California, the timing has been particularly bad because of the lingering three-year recession, during which the state has lost as many as 900,000 jobs. Once all the bases are padlocked, the state will have lost an additional 80,000 jobs, civilian as well as military.
The effects are expected to be felt most in regions that have been economically captive to the military for decades. In Monterey County, for example, Ft. Ord--scheduled to close in September, 1995--accounts for more than one-fifth of the economy.
Although a few chaotic years are probably inevitable when a base closes, many conversions have worked well over time, Closson noted.
Of more than 100 bases nationwide that shifted to civilian use in the 1960s and 1970s, scores now serve as college campuses, airports, industrial parks and even prisons.
They include Kincheloe Air Force Base in northern Michigan, where prisons, manufacturing plants and service companies employ 1,800 workers; Larson Air Force Base in Moses Lake, Wash., which now houses a jet pilot training center and an aircraft testing site, and Dow Air Force Base in Bangor, Me., home of a branch of the University of Maine, a commercial airport and a hotel.
It was easier then, however. Bases shutting down these days have the added burden of toxic waste cleanup, a task that adds time and millions of dollars onto the process.
In the most successful instances, Closson noted, the communities avoided dissent in the planning process.
That has not been the case at George Air Force Base.
When the Pentagon decided more than four years ago to phase out the wind-swept base, local officials were hardly gleeful but they didn't mope, either.
"We came to the conclusion that being in the first round of closures was a definite asset," said Peter R. D'Errico, executive director of the Victor Valley Economic Development Authority. "We could get a jump start."
Soon after George appeared on the hit list, leaders of Victorville, Hesperia, Apple Valley and San Bernardino County began developing an ambitious plan to reuse the base as a full-service airport, with room left over for offices, manufacturing plants, housing and parks. The communities represent about 250,000 people in the Victor Valley.
The Victor Valley Economic Development Authority applied to the Air Force to get a portion of the base at no cost in a so-called public benefit transfer. At one point, Japan Air Lines committed to train its 747 crews at the base. Things were progressing smoothly.