Relief, heartbreak and more anticipation
When the Department of Defense (DoD) marked Ellsworth Air Force Base to be shuttered earlier this year as part of a massive military reorganization, a politically fractured South Dakota congressional delegation came together to fight the closure. With more than 7,000 military and civilian jobs at stake, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., once bitter enemies, set aside their differences to retain Ellsworth, the second largest employer in the state.
Teaming up with local and state officials, the South Dakota congressional delegation spent the summer lobbying members and staff of the federally appointed Defense Base and Closure Realignment (BRAC) Commission to reject the DoD’s recommendation. “Having a united front was important, because you had the governor and members of the delegation from opposite sides of the political spectrum all coming together,” Thune says.
To further show their commitment, lawmakers and community leaders attended nearly all of the BRAC hearings, even if the fate of Ellsworth was not on the agenda. “If you look at the delegations that succeeded, they were the delegations that really lived with the commission and the process throughout,” Thune says.
On Sept. 8, the BRAC Commission delivered its final report to President Bush, sparing Ellsworth but closing 21 major installations and realigning seven others. The commission kept five bases open that the DoD had slotted for closure, instead closing or realigning other installations.
In addition to South Dakota, New England also fared well in the process, with the commission overturning the DoD’s suggestion that New Hampshire’s Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and a submarine base in New London, Conn., be closed. Georgia, however, lost several installations. Even powerful senators, such as Trent Lott, R-Miss., were unable to save bases located in their backyards.
BRAC chairman Anthony Principi says the commission considered many factors in choosing which bases to keep open or to close. “While we listened carefully to the input from local communities, military value was our top priority,” he says.
But the closure of a base does not mean the community necessarily will face economic hardship. Paul Tauer, the former mayor of Aurora, Colo., endured back-to-back closings in the 1990s, and the city has since capitalized on it. In 1991, the commission decided to close Lowry Air Force Base and four years later decided to shutter Fitzsimons Army Medical Center.
Now, the two former military installations are booming. At Lowry, new housing and retail dot the former base, and Fitzsimons is becoming the home of a major medical center. Tauer says it is important for local leaders to think beyond base closings and plan for the future. “The key, in my mind, is to have the entire community work together to develop a plan,” says Tauer, who now advises states, cities and counties on BRAC issues.
Still, other bases are expected to grow, causing other challenges. The DoD identifies “off-base housing scarcity and school overcrowdings” as two effects of base expansion. The federal government is working with communities to assess how to absorb the growth.