When Brac Comes Calling

Nothing is more political or emotional than base closures. But in the end, how much does it really matter?
October 2005
William Fulton
By William Fulton  |  Columnist
Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.

My local military base is going to take a hit. Ten years ago, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission reversed itself and spared the two installations that make up Naval Base Ventura County here in Southern California. This time around, we weren't so lucky: BRAC is moving 2,000 of our 16,000 jobs to Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake--from the coast to the high desert some 200 miles away.

For the moment, we are grateful that we still have most of our jobs and that BRAC did not also move another 1,000 jobs to China Lake, as we had feared. Still playing defense, our local BRAC committee continues to assert that in both weapons testing and construction battalions, we do the job well here--cheaper and better than it can be done anywhere else.

Similar scenarios are being played out all across the country because of the latest set of BRAC decisions. And it's nothing new. We've spent almost half a century--since President Kennedy came into office in 1961--closing and reorganizing all the bases we opened during World War II. Yet winning or losing still stirs up intense emotions, not unlike the emotions we all witnessed last July when London won the 2012 Olympics over Paris.

Even the satirical Web site Brokennews.com got into the BRAC act, reporting that the secretary of defense was going to consolidate all U.S. military bases into a "megabase" in the desert Southwest that would become the 51st state under the name of "Rumsfeldia." (When a reporter pointed out that the site was actually in Mexico, Brokennews.com reported, the secretary supposedly replied, "Yeah, so?")

In other words, nothing is more political or emotional than base closures. But in the end, how much does it really matter?

Since the first BRAC round in 1988, we now have almost 20 years of experience in assessing the impact. There has been a lot of research done. And the conclusions are pretty clear: The impact of a base closure isn't nearly as severe as everybody thinks. And it's a lot less severe in a suburban area than in a rural one.

Most politicians would probably resist these conclusions, but they make sense. The modern American economy is a pretty fluid thing. Individual businesses and business sectors ebb and flow constantly. The closure or cutback of a large military base is going to cause temporary job losses, but it also leaves behind a cadre of skilled civilian workers--and, possibly, some attractive facilities besides-- that local economic development experts and business leaders will know how to exploit. If talent is the most important raw material these days, then a military base makes for terrific mining.

Suburban areas, in particular, are aswim with a large talent pool that is constantly circling around a vast group of businesses and economic opportunities. The whole point of living in, say, an inner suburb of Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Seattle or Washington, D.C., is to use the vast regional job pool as an employment safety net. One job goes away, another one pops up, especially for talented folks on the higher end of the economic ladder.

And California's experience in the 1990s suggests that the most precious asset unleashed by base closures is perhaps the scarcest one of all: land. The state suffered dozens of base closures during that time, but most closures freed up large chunks of real estate strategically located in expensive and land-poor older suburbs. The sudden availability of that land has been critical to the state's ongoing success. There would be no California State University, Monterey Bay, for example, if there were still a Fort Ord.

Rural areas are another matter, of course. The presence of a military base in a rural town creates a kind of "factory town" effect. There are few other options, so almost everybody works at the base where employment is steady, pay is good and income flows into the town from the outside. And because land is abundant in rural areas, putting Department of Defense property on the market probably makes things worse rather than better--the opposite of suburban locations.

This is not an argument to close all the suburban bases and keep all the rural bases open. Despite the politics and the emotion and the lobbying, we must never forget that the purpose of a military base is not to keep a local economy afloat but to help defend the country. Economic development practitioners aren't dummies, which is why, during the BRAC era, they have increasingly tailored their arguments toward this goal--Base X helps secure the peace because of location, talented workforce, sunk cost, efficiency and so on. This is a neat trick. But the neatest trick is to find civilian markets for the skills, products and services your local base has created--before BRAC ever comes around.