Making Lemonade

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Alexandria, La.

In this lush farm region of Central Louisiana, lemonade is more than a cool drink on a hot summer day. It's a metaphor for economic recovery.

Four years ago, townsfolk cringed when they found out that England Air Force Base was closing as part of a nationwide military downsizing, taking with it 4,800 base-related jobs--including 70 positions at the base school--and leveling up to one-third of the region's economy.

"Everybody was really scared," recalls Jon W. Grafton, who was Alexandria city clerk at the time. "We had Ph.D.s tell us that the economy would fall back 20 years and not recover until 2020."

But even as leaders in this region of nearly 500,000 residents were fighting the closure, a separate group was gearing up to mount an offensive that would eventually lead to local control of the closed base and its conversion into a hub for education, commercial aviation, and communications activity.

Today, the 2,282-acre former base houses the area's only elementary magnet school, a 1,000-student college campus, a day-care center run by a local university, and a total of 26 new tenants.

"Alexandria and other communities have proved that the way to deal with this is to get active and look beyond the here and now to the future," says Mac McArthy, the base transition coordinator for England. "You take the lemons you've been given and make lemonade."

Since 1988, when the federal government released its first list of base closures, communities nationwide have struggled to make the same transition. And while most of the concern is over economic impact, school systems get hit with declining enrollments, staff reductions, and lost revenues.

Including the 28 major bases added to this spring's final round of closures, some 88 large bases and scores of smaller sites have been targeted for closure since 1988.

Increasingly, however, communities like Alexandria have thrived in the wake of base closures. And school systems have stepped in as major players in many base-reuse plans, frequently acquiring property, buildings, and former military equipment in the process--often for free.

A recent General Accounting Office report on the 1988 and 1991 base closures found that some 5,000 acres from those bases have been parceled for no-cost transfers to education groups at the K-12 and college levels. Much of that acreage includes structures and valuable equipment. And while the acreage pales compared with property set aside for economic development and parks, it comes as a welcome windfall for local schools.

As other school systems confront pending base closures, administrators would be wise to heed the advice of veterans who urge them to come up with a vision, get organized, and be persistent. The communities that fare best, they say, stop fretting over the closure and look ahead. It also helps if neighboring towns can avoid squabbles and litigation over dividing base property.

"Initially, we were all feeling gloomy about redevelopment," remembers Mary Beth Susman, the executive director of Colorado Electronic Community College, which delivers curriculum via cable and other media nationwide as part of a five-campus education mall with 800 students on the former Lowry Air Force Base near Denver. "There wasn't a lot of interest at the beginning, but coming up with a vision of what could be done became a real key."

"We thought the rules and procedures were prescriptive, but they were dynamic, and the rules changed," adds Gig Powers, the assistant superintendent for the Folsom-Cordova school system near Sacramento, which has taken ownership of two Mather Air Force Base schools. "Literally, you have to talk to everybody to make sure you're in the loop."

It's 5:30 a.m. when 9-year-old Susan Ozier rolls out of bed to begin the two-hour exercise of getting to school. Susan is one of 600 students at Phoenix Elementary Magnet School, which the local Rapides Parish school system opened in 1994 in the former England Air Force Base school. Business leaders toast Phoenix Elementary as a bright spot in the reuse of the England base and tout it as a symbol of local commitment to education. The only elementary magnet program in the 27,000-student system, it has already drawn 95 students from private and home schools and has a waiting list of 230.

"We gave Susan the option to go back to her old school just 15 minutes from the house, but she wants to be here," says Wanda Ozier, Susan's mom. She adds that Susan has been so happy at Phoenix Elementary that "she forgot that she was in school."

Susan's 90-minute bus ride along country roads ends 10 miles north of downtown Alexandria. An empty sentry booth and "Welcome to England" sign mark the entrance to the former base. Vacant houses--with yards so neat the base barber could have groomed them--punctuate the stillness. A quarter of a mile ahead is Phoenix Elementary, an unassuming single-story school built in 1965 that is bordered by playgrounds and sprawling athletic fields.

For two years, the school stood empty as the base-conversion process got under way. But when Rapides school officials decided to lease the building for $143,000 a year, the school was ready for students in just 45 days. It came stocked with desks, a television studio, a 20,000-volume library, 70 computer stations, and a mushroom-shaped inflatable indoor planetarium, all left behind by the U.S. military.

"I was amazed," recalls Betty Cox, the superintendent for the Rapides schools at the time. "It was in such good condition. We couldn't afford to build it, or even duplicate it in an existing school." She estimates that the school and its equipment are worth up to $5 million. Other base facilities--like the large multi-use theater--are also available to the school.

Cox sees the school as an education laboratory for the region. Indeed, parents must sign contracts pledging to be involved at school, and students must maintain a 2.5 grade-point average. And negotiations are still under way to use 20 base housing units for student teachers, especially minorities, from outside the area in hopes of luring them here permanently.

Johnny Miller pulled his two children from a local Catholic school to attend Phoenix Elementary. "They get the religious part from us," he says. "But now we say, 'Wow, they're getting this kind of education, and it's free."'

But such plaudits may not be enough to preserve Phoenix Elementary's rise from oblivion.

A controversy is brewing over the fee that the Rapides schools system pays to the England Authority, the redevelopment agency that leases the former base from the government for $1 a year. In turn, the authority finds base tenants and provides major maintenance and police and fire protection. But the terms of Phoenix Elementary's lease have split the Rapides school board, which also pondered using the site as a boot camp for disruptive students.

"We're not in favor of closing the school, but it's a serious financial problem trying to lease it," says board president Sylvia Pearson. She says the school system rushed into the deal and even argues that the district should be getting the building for free. She adds that staff members at other area schools resent Phoenix Elementary because they believe the school consumes more than its share of scarce resources and good students.

Pearson led the effort in December to fire Cox as superintendent, citing the school as one example of how the ousted chief mismanaged the system's finances. Cox, who is challenging her dismissal in federal court, alleges that the board's conclusions were unfounded.

Judy McLure, one of nine school board members, claims that the school became a referendum on Cox. "The school is a golden opportunity," she says, "and to turn our backs on it doesn't make sense to me." She adds that the $143,000 lease accounts for only a small part of the district's $90 million budget.

Phoenix Elementary has also found strong allies in the business community.

"We see the strengthening of education in Rapides Parish as one of the most essential aids of development," says Grafton, now the executive director of the England Authority. "While the school does not attract tenants in and of itself, it does show a commitment by Central Louisiana to do what it takes to prepare for the 21st century."

Nancy Stich, a bank officer who sits on the local chamber, points to Phoenix as one of the most positive aspects of the base closure. "It's a wonderful example of the direction we need to be going in education."

No two base closures--or reuse plans--are the same. And because the process is usually like a family parceling out a huge inheritance to itself, with the same potential risks and rewards, the government has stepped in to speed up the process by requiring "local redevelopment authorities." Made up of a cross section of local leaders, these groups meet in public to map out how the community will make use of abandoned military property. They are designated to speak for the community, and their plans are forwarded to the military and other federal agencies for review, approval, and the necessary legal transactions.

"We encourage education officials to be strongly involved in base-reuse commissions," says Helen L. Hines, who works in the Defense Department's office of economic adjustment, which helps communities rebound from closures. "If education is an issue, then there should be an education subcommittee."

The England Authority, however, takes the scenario a step further. In an unusual case, the former base was completely turned over, essentially, to a regulated landlord with exclusive authority to manage the property.

Education groups can also benefit from federal laws that require reuse authorities to give priority consideration to federal agencies, homeless providers, and state and local government interests. By showing that their needs are consistent with local reuse goals, school districts, college systems, and even private schools can get public-use conveyances of land, buildings, and equipment--at little or no cost. Most school-related deed transfers go through the U.S. Department of Education.

"The key is to start early and get organized in order to obtain consensus," says Paul Dempsey, the director of the Defense Department's office of economic adjustment. "The single most destructive ingredient in unsuccessful reuse is fragmentation."

Fortunately, Dempsey says, just such a proactive approach is part of a new psychology that has taken hold in communities hit by recent base closures. In general, communities now spend less time resisting and fighting closures and are quicker to look ahead.

Speedier closures are one reason for this change in attitude. It took five years or more for many bases targeted in 1988 to finally shut down, giving communities a false sense that it would never happen. By 1991, bases were closing in 18 months, even in the wake of the Persian Gulf War.

"Some communities felt they were slam-dunked," Hines says. So when the 1993 list became official, "people had seen this happen and knew it wasn't a joke."

That's why David Hakola, the director of the little-known Education Department office that handles school district requests for property, expects an "avalanche" of new applications from the 1993 and 1995 rounds of base closures. "We've already made the case for a lot of transfers, and now we're just waiting for an answer," he says. "We expect the crunch to last for at least three more years."

Staff downsizing and the recent death of a colleague have reduced his staff to two veterans and two newcomers. But Hakola says they are up to the task, even if piles of haphazardly stacked folders lining his windowless office seem to shout otherwise.

His "real property" office also leads base-closure workshops and makes sure the properties get used according to transfer agreements. Since 1950, the team has made more than 2,200 transfers of land and other real estate, including portable buildings and a lava flow in Hawaii that was turned over to a local university for research purposes.

Hakola is counting on local redevelopment agencies to take some of the decisionmaking and planning work off his hands. "The key now is for schools to identify interests and really snuggle up to that redevelopment agency," he says. "They're the ones really familiar with the day-to-day planning."

As for progress, Dempsey says communities with bases on the 1995 closure list should already have redevelopment authorities in place. And they need to be determining what, if any, property the military will keep and should be moving into the preliminary stages of setting reuse priorities.

"If the community can't figure out what it wants to do, then the department has no direction for disposal," Hines adds. "We prefer to work through one group. The department does not want to choose between groups."

In exchange for their patience, creativity, organization, and luck, scores of communities across the country--like Alexandria--have taken over military property or are well on their way. And though it may take longer than the 45 days the Rapides parish schools needed to open Phoenix Elementary, most communities will have received property at no cost.

  • The Tustin Unified School District in Southern California expects to receive 60 acres from the former Tustin Marine Corps Air Station, where it plans to build two elementary schools and a high school.drop in fig.

    "Like all the bases, every entity imaginable wanted a piece of the land," says Donna Burt, the facilitator of administrative services for the district. "This is a great benefit because of our constant growth. We could never have afforded the land in these economic times."

  • The Denver public school system and a consortium of Colorado colleges have created a center for postsecondary, vocational, alternative, and on-line education on what was once Lowry Air Force Base. Two private schools have also set up shop on the base, and another is expected to open its doors in the next year. Almost all of the properties--including about 1 million square feet of building space on 146 acres--were transferred to the school systems at no cost.
  • The Monterey Peninsula schools in California received 100 acres of property on the 27,725-acre Fort Ord Army Base, which closed in 1993. In an agreement with the military, the district had already built one middle and four elementary schools for base children on the property. But now, in addition to the school buildings, the district owns the land they stand on. District officials also hope to take over the former officers' club for an administration building.

In all, nearly 3,000 acres of Fort Ord were set aside for education, though most of them went to the state higher education system, which opened California State University at Monterey Bay this fall.

  • The first-year Maine School of Science & Mathematics, a statewide residential charter school in rural Limestone, houses 123 students in dormitories on what used to be Loring Air Force Base, five miles away from the school.
  • California's Long Beach school district this year opened its high-tech Savannah Academy for 300 9th graders in renovated housing on the former Long Beach Naval Station. The district also received 56 acres for a new high school. The estimated value of both properties totals $47.5 million.

Despite the best intentions and efforts, even the most creative base-reuse plans come with no guarantees for school districts. In some cases, schools lose out to business interests, federal agencies, or other competitors. Other times, schools discover that the available property needs more improvement than they can afford.

Craig C. Douglas was the superintendent of the Oscoda schools in northern Michigan in 1992 when the Wurtsmith Air Force Base closed, posing him with both a crisis and an opportunity.

First, he faced the projected loss of the 1,700 students whose parents were connected to the base--nearly half of his 3,480 student body. As it turned out, many families ended up staying in the area and others moved in, averting the crisis at least in part. Enrollment never dropped below 2,100 and is now at 2,217.

In the way of opportunity, the first-time schools chief joined area school officials in an effort to convert a former base building into a regional vocational-education center. The group planned to get a $4 million Defense Department grant to make the necessary improvements to the building. With that backing, it could then ask the Education Department for the property.

It all sounded good until the grant was denied. "We put all our eggs into one basket," says Douglas, who is now the superintendent of the Carrollton school system, about 100 miles to the south. "But it turned out to be a crappy strategy because we didn't get the grant--the big-ticket item."

But the Wurtsmith closure was not a total loss to area schools. Neighboring Iosco Intermediate School District and Alpena Community College moved into the former base's administration building, where the schools offer classes and house their own administration offices. To the credit of Oscoda-area officials, they found a way to work together.

In contrast, competing towns in rural Southeastern California tied up the future use of George Air Force Base and scared away potential tenants during their six-year legal battle that tallied more than 30 lawsuits costing about $10 million.

One Defense Department official called the George fiasco the "poster child" for how not to close a base. The case has been resolved out of court, however, with the city of Adelanto, which initiated most of the lawsuits, being left out of the reuse plan almost completely.

Fortunately, the Victorville and Adelanto school districts were able to get prime real estate by circumventing the legal melee and working through the military and the Education Department.

"We had started negotiating with George Air Force Base before it was on the hit list," says Peter C. Chavis, the assistant superintendent for business services at Victor Valley Union High School District, which received 20 acres, worth upwards of $4 million, for a junior high school.

The whole process took nearly five years and two lengthy applications, but it was worth it, Chavis says. Neighboring Adelanto schools took over two schools, including one that it has converted into a magnet program.

Nearby, Los Angeles County school officials had eyed the former Long Beach Navy Hospital as a possible site for a new administrative building. The county, however, lost out on its bid to local business interests.

In Orlando, Fla., school officials are awaiting the deed to 12 acres of land for a future elementary school and a park near a local high school, all from the former Naval Training Center in Orlando. Earlier, when they teamed up with local colleges to show interest in one of the nicer buildings on the base, a federal agency edged them out.

As for remaining buildings, "no others could be rehabilitated without extensive expenses," says Jon Martin, who oversees properties and facilities for the Orlando schools. "If you have very restrictive standards, buildings that look good to the normal person may not be good for us."

Still, some school officials simply opt out of the reuse process in any major way. "At the time we were in a position to look at Lowry Air Force Base, we needed to downsize instead of expand," recalls Sharon Johnson, an assistant superintendent with the Denver public schools. "But it probably would have been very wise to be more aggressive."

Vol. 15, Issue 18

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