Cover Story: Florida's Military Bases
As the federal government decides which of its 450 military bases it no longer needs, the politics of Florida’s save-the-bases effort may overshadow some economic opportunities.
Tim Laney, Bank of America's Florida president and the co-chair of the advisory council, says the stakes are too high for anything but an all-out effort: "It's a little difficult to talk about how to handle the loss while you're still working to win the game. We certainly don't want to send any signals to the BRAC commission that we're expecting to lose any bases in Florida."
David Pace sees different truths in the base-conversion process. Pace heads the development company that's turning a former tired and polluted Navy training center in Orlando into a 4,000-home residential showplace. Baldwin Park will promote infill development, add millions to the tax rolls and has even drawn praise from the Audubon Society.
Pace says many communities would do better by planning for the opportunity that base closings create rather than fighting tooth and nail to fend off perceived disaster. Politicians "are unable to look at the alternatives," says Pace, managing director of Baldwin Park Development Co. "People are scared to death to even acknowledge Plan B."
The political realities and economic opportunities will begin realigning this month when the Pentagon, on May 16, issues the list of bases it proposes to close in the first BRAC round in a decade. Many, including Bush, expect Florida to do well: The state could even see a net gain in military presence as soldiers, sailors and airmen move here from bases closed elsewhere -- adding to the $21.7 billion in wages, benefits and contracts that the Department of Defense now channels to Florida.
The odds are, however, that at least a couple of Florida bases will be on the list ("Well-Positioned," page 74). Laney's group plans a teleconference the day after the Pentagon list comes ou; if a Florida base is on the list, the group's first response, he says, will be to try to keep it from closing.
But while the advisory group may see no alternative to a hold-the-line-at-all-costs effort, the experience of communities in Florida and elsewhere poses questions about when it makes more sense to surrender to economic opportunity than to fight on politically.
The BRAC process dates to the Reagan era and a perennial conflict: The military, called to be efficient, is pitted against congressional representatives intent upon maintaining local bases and their civilian and military jobs.
Congress created BRAC essentially as political cover: Under BRAC, Congress enables the Pentagon to make the best decisions about how to cut waste, while Congress retained the ability to ensure voters back home that the process is fair -- and serves national security.
In the BRAC process, the Pentagon produces a list of military units it wants to move and white elephant real estate it wants to shed. A presidentially appointed commission then tweaks the list and sends it on as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition to the president and then Congress.
Communities with bases on the list go through a "five stages of grief kind of thing," says retired Navy officer Ken Beeks, vice president of Washington-based Business Executives for National Security, which favors BRAC reductions.
That was the case when the Orlando Naval Training Center and its 1,105 civilian jobs made the 1993 list. Pace, the Baldwin Park developer, was working on Disney's Celebration town development project near Orlando when the closing was announced. "I thought, 'Wow. That was going to be a blow.' Everybody here was sad when the base was closed."
Local feelings aside, BRAC works. Through the first four rounds ending in 1995, the military eliminated 97 major bases, saving about $28.9 billion through 2003 and $7 billion a year thereafter -- equivalent to nine new nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, or 60% of the spending on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in 2003.
Today, the Pentagon reckons, there's some 25% worth of bloat among its existing 450 bases. But since 1995, the Pentagon hasn't succeeded in getting a skittish Congress to allow another BRAC round.
The 10-year gap explains why states are bracing for the biggest round of base closings since World War II. Many believe that the Defense Department has waited so long and is so fearful it won't get another chance again for years that it will propose aggressive cuts. In addition, the commission has less discretion this round to take a base off the Pentagon's closure list. Based on the sheer numbers of facilities in the state, Florida has reason to fear the cost-cutting scythe will sweep across its borders.
In response, the state has waged a campaign that resembles nothing so much as the kind of wooing normally reserved for corporate and factory relocations. Tactics extend all the way down to selling Florida's weather, with the emphasis on the number of sunny days shifted to their suitability for flight training rather than golf.
The state has spent $743 million to bolster its case. Only Texas, which passed a $250-million bond measure to do likewise, comes close. Florida has widened roads to bases, upgraded water and sewer capacity for them and hired squads of consultants and retired military officers -- up to retired four-star Adm. Robert Natter -- to lobby for the military value of Florida's bases, the key Pentagon criterion.
Most expensively, Florida has spent approximately $745 million over the years to buy 482,500 acres as conservation land near bases to alleviate encroachment from subdivisions and businesses on base fringes and flight paths, a major complaint of the military nationally.
Florida has also passed a number of military-friendly laws, that, among others, make it easier for nurse spouses of transferred service members to get licensed in Florida. As long as they qualify otherwise, teen offspring of soldiers and sailors are guaranteed seats in advance placement classes and charter and magnet schools, instead of ending up stuck on waiting lists -- a frequent occurence as their parents are transferred from place to place.
"No state has done more to create a positive environment for the men and women who serve our country in the Armed Forces. Period," says Laney.
Bush and state officials of various stripes have visited Washington to meet with congressional representatives and Pentagon officials. "The governor's put on the full-court press," says Tom McGurk, a retired Air Force colonel and director of defense and military programs for Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development arm.
Indeed, a confident Bush, after a February trip, told reporters he expected Florida to be a "net winner" in the process -- adding more missions and personnel than it will lose.
Some view with skepticism the notion of hiring lobbyists to pitch the Pentagon on the military value of the state's bases. "It's hard for me to imagine you're going to tell (Pentagon officials) how that base contributes to national security that they don't already know," says Christopher Hellman, policy analyst for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
Lobbying is "a big fat waste of your taxpayer dollars," concurs Jack Spencer, a senior policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank. "If ever there was a case of snake oil salesmen taking advantage of local communities, this is it."
Instead of paying lobbyists, Spencer says, the states should pay for contingency plans for bases facing closure. In general, communities looking at a base closure should have begun planning last year for the eventuality, says Herb Smetheram, a retired Navy captain who was executive director of the Orlando planning effort that led to Baldwin Park.
Such planning isn't much in evidence in Florida. In March, former Congressman Sam Gibbons, while being honored at a Tampa City Council meeting, warned the council it should plan for MacDill Air Force Base closing someday. Gibbons' advice was greeted as apostasy. Developer Al Austin, a member of Bush's base advisory committee, told the St. Petersburg Times, "Negative statements don't serve our cause."
Should any community with a targeted base want to hedge its bets, it will find a growing number of firms and ventures ready to play the base conversion niche. Smetheram, for instance, now consults for Orlando-based ZHA, which he says hopes to join the ranks of top base conversion planning firms. Miami-based home builder Lennar, through a joint venture earlier this year, paid $650 million to buy the old El Toro Marine Corps Air Station south of Los Angeles and paid another $400 million to the city of Irvine for construction of a grand park at El Toro on the scale of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.
El Toro is Lennar's seventh base conversion project since 1998. Lennar CEO Stuart Miller told analysts in March that El Toro contributes to the "Lennar land machine" and its ability to offer home sites in land-constricted markets.
Communities that plan for base closings can gain, according to university research studies, the Pentagon and the Association of Defense Communities, a Washington-based group of developers, communities and military that works on base closings. A Pentagon study showed 72% of the 129,649 jobs lost through BRAC had been recovered by 2003. The three major Florida bases affected by BRAC, the Orlando center, Cecil Field in Jacksonville and the air base in Homestead, showed net civilian job gains of 113% to 457%, according to the Pentagon.
The plus side of base closings includes moving non-taxable government land onto the tax rolls, better jobs, public and private reinvestment and a diversified economy. "At the end of the day, a lot of the communities are in a better position," says Tim Ford of the Association of Defense Communities.
Baldwin Park, for example, is providing in-fill development rather than suburban sprawl and resulted in large-scale environmental remediation. At buildout, Baldwin Park will put $1.7 billion in taxable value on the tax rolls, adding approximately $200 million to city tax revenue and approximately $250 million to school revenue over 30 years, Pace says.
Base conversions require patient developers willing to shoulder long-term risk, plod through community fears and surrender large chunks of real estate for parks and public use. Baldwin Park's homes and businesses will cover only 385 of the old center's 1,100 acres. Baldwin Park's developer had
$50 million invested in the land, infrastructure and a donation to the homeless before it sold its first lot, Pace says.
Environmental remediation -- needed at nearly all bases -- added more than two years to the project's timeline, he adds. Buoyed by the hot real estate market, the last of 4,000 Baldwin Park homes should be completed in 2008.
Other base conversions in Florida could be as successful as Baldwin Park, Pace says. "I won't name the bases -- it will sound like I'm cheering for them to close, (but) there are places that should be lining up to close," Pace says.
The bases toughest to find new uses for, and that take the longest to replace as economic engines, often lie in rural areas. Their location makes planning more urgent. Pace wishes communities would do that planning. "You don't necessarily have to be afraid," Pace says. "There's a light at the end, and it's not necessarily a train."
The military's fattest branch is the Army. Florida, to its possible good fortune, is largely an air-and-sea show.
Reading the military tea leaves is daunting. The services, as they move units, may empty a base that looks solid now or fill a base that at present looks marginal. Unlike past rounds, the nation's overall military won't shrink this time, and Florida could well gain as bases in other states -- including some geared toward old Cold War threats from the USSR -- close. "We could almost double what we're doing now in northwest Florida," says Paul Hirsch, a Washington lobbyist for Florida.
The Pentagon says its paramount criterion in settling on which bases to close is their military necessity. Not surprisingly, the state sells all 21 Florida bases as having the highest of military value and as unique -- code-language to protect them from arguments that other bases could do their jobs just as well. Military value "is an abstract concept. It provides the military with a lot of leeway in terms of what they want to do," says Christopher Hellman, defense budget and policy analyst for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington.
That said, a few general observations can be made. The Army is seen as the fattest branch; Florida, to its benefit, is largely an air-and-sea show. The Pentagon is big on "jointness," so Florida trumpets cross-branch activity at every base it can.
Florida also sells what it knows works so well from real estate -- location, location, location. Off its western shore, for instance, lies the Defense Department's joint Gulf range complex, 120,000 square miles of air space and water space running from Key West to the Panhandle. "Florida is just so well-situated, geographically speaking," says lobbyist Hirsch.
More tea leaf reading: The state wanted a Floridian on the BRAC commission and got retired Army Gen. James T. Hill. Base-savers were encouraged that the commission chair is former Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi , a friend of Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young, R-Indian Shores, who saved MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa once before.
Note to Gov. Jeb Bush: Don't leave Puerto Rico off your thank-you card list. When protests closed the Vieques ordnance range and the Navy decided to shut the supporting Roosevelt Roads, most of the training moved to waters around Florida, improving the state's chances in base closings.
Following is a list of Florida bases and a note on a key mission conducted there, though most bases have a laundry list of tenants, from criminal investigators to federal prisons.
Okaloosa: $798.8 million
Escambia: $575.4 million
Bay: $267.2 million
Santa Rosa: $54.5 million
Leon: $14.6 million
Walton: $4.6 million
Sources: Haas Center, University of West Florida,
using fiscal year 2002 numbers
Pensacola -- Naval Air Station. The "Cradle of Naval Aviation" has trained pilots for decades. Home to the Blue Angels. All enlisted personnel who work on aircraft get training here. Issue: Encroachment from development.
Milton -- Naval Air Station, Whiting Field. All Navy, Marine and Coast Guard helicopter pilots earn their wings here. Six of 10 Navy fixed-wing fliers take primary training here. Issue: Alabama wants helicopter instruction moved to Fort Rucker, where the Army and Air Force train.
Pensacola -- Corry Station. Here, the Navy, Air Force and Marines train personnel in cryptology, IT and electronic warfare. Issues: Schools are easily moved, and it can't handle much new activity without new construction.
Saufley Field. This small facility is now an outlying landing field for air station trainees and houses a federal prison camp. Exams for Navy enlisted personnel are written here. Issue: Some substandard facilities.
Valparaiso -- Eglin Air Force Base.
The huge base is the Air Force's airborne weapons development and proving ground. It's almost unimaginable that the Pentagon would close it.
Fort Walton Beach -- Hurlburt Field within Eglin's boundaries. It's the Air Force's special operations command and its only active special operations wing. The military spent $601 million on construction here since 1991 -- not the kind of investment it makes in a place it wants to leave. Issues: Traffic on Route 98, limited expansion potential, encroachment.
Panama City -- Tyndall Air Force Base, advance training base for the F-15 Eagle and F/A-22 Raptor. Issues: The military doesn't like Route 98 cutting through the base. And if sticker-shock leads Congress to cut back on Raptor purchases, the Pentagon may decide to put all its Raptor eggs in one base basket -- not necessarily Tyndall.
Coastal Systems Station. Coastal is an R&D lab for diving, mine warfare, amphibious operations and other coastal fighting issues. It's also the center for all Navy diving and salvage research. Issues: Housing's an issue, and there's little room for growth.
Duval: $1.062 billion
St. Johns: $16.6 million
Nassau: $12 million
Bradford: $11.6 million
Alachua: $11.3 million
Clay: $11.2 million
Mayport -- Naval station. The base hosts many small ships, but the Navy wants to retire the USS Kennedy, Mayport's largest. Issue: Mayport needs to be upgraded to host a nuclear carrier.
Jacksonville -- Naval Air Station. Anti-submarine warfare. Issue: The Navy is trimming the P-3 Orion, the base's primary aircraft, and the S-3 Viking, another Jacksonville stalwart, is being phased out.
Naval Air Depot. The largest user at the air station, the air depot is one of only three nationally and is the largest industrial employer in northeast Florida with 4,000 civilians who repair and maintain Navy aircraft. Issue: Environmental cleanup here could be so costly that the Navy might elect to mothball it rather than remediate it and turn it over for development -- the "worst possible outcome" for Jacksonville, says a state assessment.
Blount Island Command. Blount provides logistic support for storing equipment on ships that support rapid deployment of Marines to an objective. Operation Iraqi Freedom kept it very busy, and busy is good when the military is cutting.
125th Fighter Wing, Florida Air National Guard, Jacksonville International Airport. Issue: Could be moved to an air base with excess capacity.
Starke -- Camp Blanding Joint Training Center. Florida National Guard. Issue: It needs improvements and more work, and the Army is ripe for cuts.
Hillsborough: $319.4 million
Pinellas: $13.2 million
Pasco: $8.4 million
Manatee: $2.3 million
Tampa -- MacDill Air Force Base. Slated for closure in the 1991 BRAC round, it now houses a midair-refueling unit thanks largely to Congressman C.W. "Bill" Young. MacDill also is home to the U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Central Command, the outfit that runs warfare in the Middle East. Issues: To quote Donald Rumsfeld, "The European Command is in Europe, the Pacific Command's in the Pacific, and the Central Command is in Tampa. You think, my goodness, why is that?" MacDill is old, hemmed in by development, housing is limited, off-base and pricey. Developers would like the location.
Brevard: $196 million
Cocoa Beach -- Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It's a launch site for military and civilian satellites. The Navy tests missiles here. Issue: The military can launch from Vandenberg in California, though an East Coast site is needed to reach some orbits.
Cocoa Beach -- Patrick Air Force Base. The support base for the Canaveral launch site, it hosts an abundance of defense tenants. Issues: Location on the water presents security issues. And if the Pentagon can do without the Canaveral launch station, it could decide the same about Patrick.
Orange: $138.9 million
Polk: $6.2 million
Highlands: $3.6 million
Orlando -- Florida Simulation Center. This simulation R&D center next to the University of Central Florida is Orlando's tech sector pride and joy, and all service branches use it. It's hugely important to related businesses and spinoffs in Orlando and to higher education. The state has invested more than $30 million in the center. Issue: It can be moved.
Avon Park -- Avon Park Air Force Range. Only 24,000 of its 106,000 acres are dedicated to the military, with the rest open to the public for hiking, hunting, fishing and camping. The state would feel more comfortable about the base's future if it could entice more military users -- more ground combat training, for instance -- to Avon Park. Issue: Fewer than 100 permanent employees.
Miami-Dade: $135.1 million
Monroe: $46.5 million
Palm Beach: $25.5 million
Broward: $22.3 million
Miami -- U.S. Southern Command. The command, responsible for Central and South America and the Caribbean, moved to Miami from Panama in 1997 and employs 1,200 civilian and military. Issue: Expensive rental digs spread out over a few buildings. Florida has proposed the state construct a new building on state land in Miami-Dade and lease it to the federal government. The commanding general told the Senate in March that the Pentagon should jump at the deal.
Homestead -- Homestead Air Reserve Base. Hurricane Andrew forced its conversion from Air Force Base to Air Reserve Base. It hosts an Air Force Reserve fighter wing. Issue: It has room for more units but needs upgrades to accept anything significant.
Key West -- Naval Air Station. Key West is the base for the joint military and civilian interdiction of drugs and illegal immigrants. Visiting pilots train here over the water as do Army combat divers. Issues: No significant active duty units, no room for expansion. It lies in hurricane alley and near marine sanctuaries. The Pentagon could get a good price for it.