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Towns That Plan Ahead Find New Life After Base Closings

HERE'S a new one for you: A town that isn't fighting the proposed closing of a military base. When the United States Navy built an airfield here for antisubmarine blimps in 1942, there was nothing in view but orange groves and the threat of the Japanese.

Now the Santa Ana Marine Corps Air Base, a helicopter station, is surrounded by civilization - industrial parks and the stucco sprawl of an unbounded Orange County. Thus, if the base were to close, Tustin town fathers do not envision economic doom.

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"We are not going to stand up and pound on the table to oppose it," says City Manager William Huston. "You are looking at some very prime land for development."

As the deadline approaches for an independent commission to make final recommendations for base closings in the US, the clatter of protest can be heard from Long Beach, Calif., to St. Petersburg, Fla.

Local officials predict massive job losses and moribund economies if nearby military installations are padlocked. Civilian workers march in protest. Politicians pose with civilian workers marching in protest.

Yet a few communities are beginning to wonder if there might be life after the Pentagon. They are starting to think about replacing barracks and officer's clubs with condominiums, high-tech parks, and museums.

The planning is probably good. Analysts who have studied the impact of base closures on communities stress that the earlier city officials can forge a consensus about what they want to do with the land, the quicker the area can revive once the military is gone.

"Each case is unique," says Jonathan Gill, an analyst at Business Executives for National Security, a Washington, D.C., consulting group. "But generally, in the places that succeeded, people took early action."

The seven-member Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission has until July 1 to submit a final list to President Bush. It is reviewing 71 bases the Pentagon has targeted for closure or restructuring as well as 25 bases panel members have added of their own.

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The White House will have until July 15 to accept or reject the commission's entire list, or seek reconsideration of elements. If approved, it would then go to Congress for an all-or-nothing vote.

While base closings can be traumatic for communities, past experience is not one of universal woe. Many communities have successfully developed former military sites, diversifying local economies, adding jobs, and putting government land back onto tax rolls.

Of 100 base closings the Pentagon has studied since the 1960s, 158,000 new jobs have been created through redevelopment - well above the 93,000 positions lost when installations were shut down.

Forty-two have been turned into airports. Seventy-five support industrial or office parks. Colleges and vocational schools are popular choices.

There are exceptions, of course: A former Army depot in Edgemont, S.D., has not been redeveloped after 24 years; an air base remains idle in Glasgow, Mont.

Many of the base closings in the 1960s and 1970s were in isolated rural communities, where reuse can be difficult. Many on the present list are in urban areas.

Yet the proposed closings come at a time when many cities are in their worst financial shape in decades.

Turning a base into an airport or condo project is not as simple as opening a C-ration. When the facility closes, other branches of the military have first right of refusal on the land.

Under federal law, the Pentagon also has to consider if a station might be suitable for homeless shelters. Other government entities get to look at it for "public-benefit" uses: prisons, schools, and drug treatment centers. Finally, the land can be sold for private development.

Nor are bases always move-in ready. Many targeted for closure across the country have serious environmental problems. Money will have to be found to clean up sites before they can be developed.

"Overall, the experience for most communities in redeveloping bases is positive," says Mr. Gill. But getting everything in place "can take 20 years."

To get a jump on the process, some communities are doing preliminary planning - often while still officially opposing base closures.

In Silicon Valley, Sunnyvale and Mountain View are looking at teaming up with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and private aerospace firms to use research facilities at Moffett Field Naval Air Station.

Ideas for the Marine base here range from a high-tech industrial park to housing units to a blimp museum. The 1,600-acre air station is home to medium- and heavy-lift helicopters. Its 3,500 marines generate a payroll of $49 million a year.

Under the base-closure proposal, the military would continue to use some housing units but relocate other operations. Although small businesses worry about the impact of the base closing, local officials eventually expect a windfall.

"We're just going to go along with whatever the government decides," says Tustin Mayor Charles Puckett.

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