Lessons From The First Big Base To Go Dark

It's a ghost town, New England-style. Row after row of apartment buildings stand empty, their weathered shingles starting to crack. Snow is piled high in front of the school's shuttered doors. Farther on, the road is flanked by more silent structures. On one, a sign announcing "Bowling" is fading into oblivion.

Welcome to the former Pease Air Force Base on the New Hampshire coast. Once the proud home of a Strategic Air Command wing, Pease shut its gates two years ago, after being declared surplus. That made it a pioneer of sorts, the first major military base to close since the mid-1970s. Now, with dozens more scheduled to follow suit in the 1990s, hard-hit regions across the country are looking to Pease for lessons.

So far, the Pease experience suggests that base-redevelopment efforts will be slow, costly, and, above all, politically contentious. Four years after starting to plan the base's closure, New Hampshire officials can point to some modest successes. They've developed a plan to turn Pease into an international trade port and industrial center. And they've lured a handful of new tenants to the site, including two regional airlines and a biotechnology company. By 1996, the tenants are expected to employ more than 900 people.

But half ef those jobs derive from a federal pork-barrel project--a passport-and-visa office announced weeks before the 1992 New Hampshire primary. To attract private tenants, officials have promised millions of dollars' worth of free rent and cut-rate loans. Critics contend the project has been mismanaged and wasteful. "People should come to Pease to learn what not to do," says Deborah Arnesen, the unsuccessful 1992 Democratic candidate for governor.

Even the project's defenders concede that progress has been slower than anticipated. The biggest roadblock: environmental regulations, which weren't a factor in earlier base closures. In the middle of the transfer, the Air Force discovered toxic-waste sites on the base. Sorting out the cleanup involved several agencies and took months.

Sorting out the politics took even longer. The GOP-dominated state government grabbed control of the project, citing the impact of losing 4,600 jobs. It was a stunning move for a notoriously tightfisted state that had long shunned development. Pease Development Authority, created to handle the conversion, got the go-ahead to issue $250 million in bonds.

By staking so much on Pease, then-Governor Judd Gregg politicized the process. He appointed loyal operatives to top PDA posts, angering local officials who urged that a development expert be hired. "These people were total amateurs," sneers Thomas J. Morgan, town planner of neighboring Newington, N.H. Admits PDA Executive Director George C. "Skip" Jones: "When we came in, we didn't know what the hell we were doing. We underestimated the complexity." But supporters contend that political connections were vital as the project vied for funding and navigated bureaucracies.

CAMPAIGN TOY. Certainly, there was plenty of amateurish planning. Former PDA board member Robert R. Field Jr. says many PDA announcements were "timed to what appeared to be a political agenda." For example, state officials kept predicting a decision by Deutsche Airbus to put a $60 million, 400-job aircraft-maintenance facility at Pease. A private developer might not have gone out on such a limb, but it suited the needs of Governor Gregg, who was in a tight race for senator last year. Since the election, PDA officials have admitted the deal is on hold.

More substantively, the state and the Air Force ignored the need for a transportation study to determine the impact of redevelopment on air quality. Now, the Air Force is being sued by the Conservation Law Foundation, which is seeking to halt all development. PDA officials say uncertainty about the lawsuit's impact is hurting leasing efforts.

Among those who are happiest are the new tenants. Business Express Inc., a regional airline, moved a big maintenance base to Pease and operates several flights a day. In return, it's getting four years of free rent--worth $1 million a year--and $10 million in low-interest loans, plus a commitment that the state will train up to 200 employees.

PDA officials say it needs such deals to attract big tenants. The original hope for 12,000 new jobs may be wildly optimistic. But some outsiders believe that, mismanaged or not, Pease still has big advantages that could eventually bring success. "They're 60 miles from Boston, they have a great runway, they're just off a major highway, and they're throwing money at the problem," says Keith Cunningham, an analyst at Business Executives for National Security, a dovish Washington think tank. "They may be successful in spite of themselves."