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Community's Fast Action Can Soften Blow of Closure : Compromise: Experts say shutdowns will be less painful in areas that quickly agree on future plans for the sites.


Even as Orange County fights to save the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, officials would be well advised to start contemplating life without the Marines, according to experts involved in previous military base conversions.

"The military has the ability to say, '(The base) is closing. Tough. We are out of here, goodby.' And the local government is going to have to come in and fill that gap," said Sue Vanderlin, executive director of the National Assn. of Installation Developers, which acts as a clearinghouse for cities or private interests seeking to develop base conversion plans.

Communities that quickly confront the possibility that their base will close are best positioned to turn a short-term economic loss into a long-term potential gain.

Many times, however, that does not happen, the base experts said. Once a community gets over the initial shock that its military installation is closing, various civic and political factions generally begin haggling over who should determine the base's future.

The areas where the closures will be the least painful, these experts said, will be those which can reach compromises early on.

There is little question that if the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission upholds the Defense Department's decision to close the El Toro base, Orange County will likely become embroiled in one of its nastiest political battles in recent times.

Given the glut in the overbuilt commercial and industrial real estate markets, the only development option being discussed for El Toro has been its conversion to a regional airport on the scale of John Wayne Airport.

Those seeking to quickly convert El Toro into a commercial and cargo airport, led by the city of Newport Beach and freight carriers like Federal Express and United Parcel Service, are expected to mount a significant lobbying campaign against an underfunded but highly spirited coalition of South County residents and local officials.

Some studies have shown that there is a growing need for another major airport in Orange County, but the Federal Aviation Administration recently said it has not yet made a formal decision on the county's future airport needs, or where an additional airport might be located.

Still intent on trying to persuade the commission to reverse the Defense Department's decision to close El Toro, the South County citizens group believes the time has not yet arrived to begin considering development options for the 4,700-acre site.

But wasting no time, Newport Beach recently unveiled a $33,000 preliminary study of the economic benefits that might be derived from the conversion of the base to an airport. That study concluded that by the year 2005, a second regional airport at El Toro could be serving 8.4 million passengers a year, providing 5,860 jobs, and pumping $621.6 million into the local economy.

Experts said both sides may be guilty of errors.

The community must begin planning, but premature detailed studies of economic impacts may be useless, because economic conditions and other factors will change during the five to seven years that it will take for the military to move out.

Working out conflicts "is a difficult thing to deal with, but you have to," said David McKinnon, a senior project manager with the Office of Economic Adjustment at the Defense Department. "Otherwise, you are leaving your . . . future in the hands of a federal agency."

One factor not to be overlooked, he added, is that even before local governments or private developers can divvy up the land being abandoned by the Marines, other federal agencies have first option on the property for uses ranging from middle-income housing or social service centers, to a regional post office.

Yet the most likely development option for air stations is an airport, Vanderlin said.

"Almost everybody with air facilities is going to try to . . . do something with those facilities," she said. "They are very expensive, they are already in place, and it would really be a shame to try to throw away that facility. It's just too big a piece of infrastructure to throw out."

A few airfields, such as Williams Air Force Base in Mesa, Ariz., have not become commercial airports, but still use the aviation facilities, she said. Williams was jointly developed by one airline and Arizona State University as a commercial pilot training center.

One of the more recent base closures, the 4,200-acre Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, N.H., has been transformed into the Pease International Tradeport--with 500 acres set aside for high-technology development, and the remainder, including an 11,300-foot runway for commuter flights and maintenance base.

Most air bases maintain aviation-related industries, but there are some exceptions, like the former Albany Naval Air Station in Georgia which closed in 1974.

"It's an industrial park with a peanut butter plant and a brewery. The landing strip is a parking lot," McKinnon said.

A Defense Department survey of 100 communities where military installations closed between 1961 and 1990, found that more than 75 former bases had industrial and office parks; 42 established municipal or general aviation operations; 27 included public recreation facilities, and 19 had health-related activities.

Also, 56 of the former bases had educational institutions.

And overall the base closures led to improvements in local economies, the report stated.

The number of civilian jobs totaled 93,242 while the bases were in operation, according to the survey. But once the new industries took over, 158,104 civilian jobs were created.

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