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Military Fights Cutbacks With Midwestern Charm

New law creates jobs on closed bases by providing incentives for development.

In this quiet community of tree-lined streets and ice-cream delivery trucks, J. Lynn Boese stands in front of a handsome row of red-brick Federalist houses with "BUY ME" signs on the lawns. He's peddling Midwestern charm at, of all places, a former military base.

"Here we have all the accoutrements of a city that's been here for 100 years," says Mr. Boese, a former city attorney who wears suspenders and wire-rimmed glasses.

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The 2,500-acre base covers the largest tract of hardwood forest in Indiana, including a rare grove of black walnut trees. It operated for nearly a century as an independent community, with its own fire department, power station, and sewer system.

Now the base and surrounding town are pioneering the use of a new federal law aimed at creating more jobs and taxable businesses on former military facilities. Under the new law, local development authorities can purchase military land and pay the government back over time, instead of up front.

Nationwide, the legislation promises to speed the replacement of some of the nearly 82,000 civilian jobs lost during the military downsizing that has shut down 50 bases since 1989. Another 47 bases are slated to close in or before the year 2001, Pentagon officials say.

The new law is "probably now the catalyst for a majority of civilian replacement jobs," says Paul Dempsey, director of the Office of Base Closure and Community Reinvestment at the Pentagon. "This is a major development tool," he says, adding that some 40,000 news jobs have been created to date.

At Indiana's Fort Benjamin Harrison, locally known as "Fort Ben," Boese's goals are to create an old-fashioned town center, generate 10,000 jobs, and create some $7 million in property-tax revenues - far more than the Army base ever did.

Local officials in Lawrence were among the first in the country to take advantage of the new legislation, passed in late 1993, which allows the military to sell property at fair market value to local development authorities who are set up to plan for the best economic use of the land.

Previously, military land was not sold specifically for economic use. Instead, it was "conveyed" for recreation, aviation, health, and "public benefit" - uses that often required communities to spend more money instead of bringing revenue in.

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The Fort Harrison Reuse Authority (FHRA), headed by Boese, started work in mid-1995 and less than a year later purchased 550 acres and some 400 buildings from the Army for $6.9 million. The money is repayable over nine years.

In only a few months, the FHRA has sold three sections of land for more than $6 million for residential development. Included in the catch are several stately, 90-year-old brick former officers' homes, finished in oak, in a designated historic district.

On other parcels of land, a $2-million YMCA is operating, and a new health clinic is scheduled to open this fall.

The FHRA deals have led to the creation of 555 new jobs, or more than 12 percent of the 4,240 civilian jobs lost when the base closed.

"They have moved at a steady, quick pace, in a very purposeful, typically Midwestern fashion," says Mr. Dempsey.

The conversion of Fort Harrison to private use has been smoothed by the relatively undeveloped state of the land in and around the post. Some 1,700 acres have already been converted into a state park. Deer and other wildlife are plentiful.

But it's more than a nature reserve, says Boese. For example, the former base boasts a sweeping parade field with a gazebo on one end, where in past decades military bands played weekly summer concerts.

"We see this as an opportunity to create the city center Lawrence never had - a historic hub for community activities and esprit," he says.

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