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Charting Fort Monroe’s path through other closed bases

By Robert Brauchle, rbrauchle@dailypress.com | 757-247-2827

December 27, 2012

ROME, N.Y. — On a sunny November morning, a dozen or so passenger jets are parked like cars at a repair shop on the tarmac at Griffiss Business and Technology Park.

With a wing missing here, and a tail missing there, these passenger jets are being repaired and overhauled by companies specializing in such services.

The operators of the former Griffiss Air Force Base have found a path toward prosperity in the two-mile runway used by B-52 bombers during the Cold War.

There was no cookie-cutter approach to redeveloping the 3,500-acre base or simple outline for success, said Steve DiMeo, president of the Griffiss Local Development Corp., the group overseeing the property’s redevelopment.

The military closed the facility in 1995 after fears of a communist attack dissolved with the Soviet Union.

“We needed to make sure we had both the political support and the community support for everything we did,” DiMeo said. “Without the community supporting what we wanted to do, we knew we’d have little chance of getting off the ground.”

Sticking to a plan

Even though Griffiss is more than six times the size of Fort Monroe, its owner, Oneida County, faces many of the same challenges — maintaining and upgrading water and sewer lines, roads and buildings and razing unusable buildings.

“It’s really a city within a city,” Oneida County Executive Tony Picente said. “We were left the keys and left to keep the water running and the streets plowed. It was a daunting task at first.”

The development corporation has followed the site’s capital plan with a “religious” zeal, which has saved money over the long term and made the property more attractive to tenants, DiMeo said.

“The secret for us was having a good redevelopment plan,” he said. “There at Fort Monroe, they need to understand the dynamics of the marketplace.”

Using the facility’s 2.2-mile runway and large hangars, Griffiss is now home to a pair of airplane maintenance companies, a distribution warehouse and a small college campus where professors teach avionics. Students can then find employment at those companies located just down the road.

Oneida County still subsidizes the airfield at Griffiss, but revenue from building leases increased 13 percent from 2010 to 2011.

There have been missteps along the way. Most publicly, in 1999 Griffiss hosted a Woodstock-themed festival. Attendees set fire to the concert grounds and reportedly looted numerous vendors during the three-day event.

DiMeo said the facility was “young” at the time and still feeling out its direction.

“If that opportunity came again in 2012, we’d respectfully decline,” he said.

Picente said progress at Griffiss is now reverberating into the surrounding community.

“The leadership had to set a direction in that initial phase and get everyone moving in the same direction,” Picente said.

Fort Devens, Mass.

Fort Devens is a nearly 5,000-acre campus about 38 miles west of Boston. It served as the U.S. Army’s New England headquarters for seven decades before becoming a civilian community in 2007.

MassDevelopment, the semi-private entity that owns the former fort, has used the open green space to lure tenants such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, Response Microwave Inc. and AOA Xinetics (an offshoot of Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems) — companies that wanted to erect new buildings.

A block of historic brick buildings known as Vicksburg Square has not fared as well.

Political wrangling and concerns about the financial stability of at least two development proposals have kept Vicksburg Square nearly vacant, according to the Boston Globe.

Glenn Oder, executive director of the Fort Monroe Authority, said finding tenants for Monroe’s historic buildings will be key to preserving their integrity. And he thinks Fort Monroe’s buildings may be in better shape.

“Those buildings at Devens might already been too far gone to be saved,” Oder said of Vicksburg Square.

The market for commercial buildings has dropped in Hampton Roads in the past five years as the economy has struggled, according to consultants creating Fort Monroe’s master plan. But Fort Monroe has seen some initial success attracting residential tenants — more than 100 have moved into homes in the past year, Oder said.

The city of Hampton, state police and a veterans support center have rented office space.

That revenue will help Fort Monroe achieve its goal of being economically sustainable.

The Presidio, Calif.

The Presidio of San Francisco is both a closed military base and National Park Service site. Located along San Francisco Bay, its waterfront location evokes some of the most striking resemblances to Fort Monroe.

The Presidio’s economics, however, differ greatly from Fort Monroe.

The Presidio Trust is a federal entity that has overseen the San Francisco site with the park service since 1996. In comparison, the Commonwealth of Virginia and park service will ultimately control Fort Monroe.

Congress has earmarked millions of dollars for the property over the past 15 years, according to the Presidio Trust’s 2012 annual report, but that support ended in 2012 now that the site has achieved fiscal sustainability.

Fort Monroe’s 2013 budget will include $6.2 million in state and federal funding.

Oder has said the Presidio’s close to 800 buildings provide a larger source of revenue — close to $58 million from leases annually — than could be achieved at Fort Monroe.

On Dec. 13, master planning consultant Sasaki Associates reported that Fort Monroe will likely have an annual operating budget gap of more than $3 million indefinitely based on the current economic model.

“More development is not necessarily the answer,” Oder said. “We need to come up with a strategic development that makes sense.”

“We want what’s best for Fort Monroe,” Oder said. “I believe rising tides raise all ships, and I see Fort Monroe as being that tide.”

Griffiss Air Force Base

Where: Rome, N.Y.

Military purpose: Opened in 1942, missions at Griffiss included fighter interceptors, electronic research, aerial refueling, and bombers. Named after Lt. Col. Townsend Griffiss who was first U.S. airman to be killed in the line of duty in the European Theater in World War II. (He was killed by friendly fire.)

Closure: 1995

Redevelopment: Griffiss Business and Technology Park now includes numerous aviation-based companies and government facilities. Sasaki Associates created the property’s master plan.

Fort Devens

Where: Central Massachusetts

Military purpose: After opening in 1917, the campus served as the U.S. Army’s New England headquarters for 79 years. A portion of the property remains a training center for Army reservists. Named after Civil War Gen. Charles Devens.

Closure: 1996

Redevelopment: A planned community that includes high-tech companies, hotels, homes with nearly 2,100 acres of open space and recreation lands. Sasaki Associates created the property’s master plan.

The Presidio of San Francisco

Where: San Francisco, Calif.

Purpose: The land has been used since the 1770s, first as an outpost by Spain. The U.S. Army took over in 1846.

Closure: 1994

Redevelopment: Now a multi-purpose community and a National Park Service site. Sasaki Associates created the property’s master plan.

About the series

Officials at Fort Monroe are looking at other regions that have been through base closings, aiming to learn from their experiences. This series looks at a few comparable sites in New England.

Sunday: The folks planning the future of Fort Monroe have a lot to learn from other people’s experience.

Monday: Commercial development has encroached on Fort Stanwix, a historic fort in Rome, N.Y. Look out over its parapets and the view includes a dry cleaner and a nail salon.

Wednesday: Lowell, Mass., has turned the heart of its once industrial downtown into a national park. It’s not always easy to tell where the park ends and the city begins.

Thursday: At some former military bases, it’s been easy to find companies willing to build new facilities. Making use of historic buildings presents a challenge.

Copyright © 2012, Newport News, Va., Daily Press

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