Fort Ord closing offers lessons for base towns

March 23, 1993|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

MARINA, Calif. -- Here on the front line of the struggle to cut U.S. military spending, Chuck Williams' hardware store is losing a war of attrition.

Sales are down. His payroll is less than half of what it used to be. And as he stands by a silent cash register, the moan of a train whistle two blocks away tells him that more customers from nearby Fort Ord are headed north, gone for good.

That's because Fort Ord is closing, and this week the Army began an exodus that will eventually result in the departure of more than 31,000 soldiers and family members. Leaving with them will be $423 million in annual payroll checks and service contracts.

But for all that, Fort Ord may be the best example of the smart way to handle a base closing. Not many bases are as attractive, and that surely makes conversion easier.

Local governments in Monterey County have overcome petty town-to-town squabbling to endorse a plan that would convert Fort Ord's 44 square miles of beachfront real estate to a college campus, an agricultural distribution center, a small commercial airport, a vast wildlife sanctuary and, perhaps, even a junior version of the Pebble Beach golf resort just down the coast.

If Mr. Williams and other merchants can survive the economic downturn of the next few years, local leaders say, they'll eventually enjoy a prosperity they never would have attained with Fort Ord as a neighbor. That's why other communities facing a shutdown of a military base would be well advised to take a look at the Fort Ord experience, said Keith Cunningham, a policy analyst with Business Executives for National Security, a Washington organization that has studied the impact of recent closings.

Biggest lesson

The biggest lesson to be learned, Mr. Cunningham said, is that "a base closing doesn't have to be the end of the world."

But the harder lesson implicit in all this is that even the best managed shutdown inflicts economic pain. And much of the pain to be felt nationwide will be felt in California, the state that had a lot to do with electing the president who must lead the long, hard push to a post-Cold War economy.

Still recovering from the round of closings announced two years ago that included Fort Ord and other California sites, the state was hit a week ago with the news that eight more military installations have been put on the hit list.

McClellan Air Force Base in the Sacramento area and the Army's Presidio in Monterey were on the list, but then were given a reprieve by Defense Secretary Les Aspin. Yesterday, Jim Courter, the chairman of the Defense Base Closure Commission, said McClellan and the Presidio likely will be put back on the closure list.

Mr. Aspin's action drew Republican accusations of favoritism. McClellan and the Presidio are in the districts of Democratic Reps. Vic Fazio and Robert T. Matsui.

The communities around the targeted facilities can expect to feel the effects right away, even though soldiers and equipment won't begin leaving for years.

"The impact was felt here [in Monterey County] right after Fort Ord was designated for closing two years ago," said Kim Bowersox, a commercial real estate broker. "Activity stopped. It just scared the investors right out of the market."

Coping with downturn

Since then, vacancies in shopping centers have remained, and rents have dropped. Sensing the downturn, Mr. Williams stopped filling jobs as they came open at his hardware store. He used to have a full-time employee and six part-timers. Now he employs three part-timers and a young man who is subsidized by a county jobs program for underprivileged youths.

"Basically, everybody's at a point where you're just seeing if you can wait it out," he said.

A few storefronts away at a Radio Shack, manager George VTC Harrison is not sure the store's owners will have enough patience. "If the business gets any slower than it is already, they're going to close the store," he said. "This is going to turn Marina into a ghost town."

He has a point. Marina's population of about 26,000 will drop to around 11,000 when all the soldiers have gone. The town houses a large number of soldiers who live off the base, and their departure will leave about 5,000 of the county's homes and apartments vacant.

Mr. Williams is hoping the government can help his store and other small businesses get by with low interest loans until a new wave of residents comes along to replace the soldiers.

'A good test case'

County officials seem optimistic such help will arrive, and the Fort Ord shutdown should provide some early indicators on how successful the Clinton administration can be in meeting the president's goal of easing transition. "Fort Ord is a good test case," said county supervisor Karin Strasser Kauffman.

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