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    An uncertain future

    In the wake of the defense secretary's statements, some predict an economic spiral if CentCom leaves MacDill. Others say the downturn would be less severe.

    By BILL DURYEA
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 22, 2002


    photo
    [Times photo: James Borchuck]
    Tampa resident Rita Lester, 35, sews a patch onto a dress shirt at Uniform Nametape on S Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa. The majority of the store's business comes from Central Command personnel.
    TAMPA -- As Linda Colman read the stories last week saying Central Command might leave MacDill Air Force Base, she did some quick math about her small business.

    Uniform Nametape Inc., which Colman and her husband have owned for 27 years, employs 10 people who devote a large amount of time to sewing embroidered nametapes and patches on desert camouflage. Given that CentCom personnel make up the majority of the customers at her store on S Dale Mabry Highway, Colman didn't have a hard time calculating the effect on her workers.

    "I would have to let two-thirds of the people go, if not more," she said.

    And if the base shut down?

    "I might close," she said.

    Nearer to the base gates, Robert L. Fisher, the chief executive officer of the MacDill Federal Credit Union, contemplated the same possibilities and reached a rather different conclusion.

    "We wouldn't even feel it," Fisher said.

    Fewer than 20 percent of the 140,000 members of the credit union, which began in 1955 in a broom closet on the base, have ties to the military. Since the late 1980s, the credit union has aggressively diversified its customer base to limit its exposure to the vagaries of a shrinking military.

    "You hope they don't go anywhere," Fisher said of the base's 7,000 military and civilian jobs. "But I think you would be safe to say that this base closing today would have much less impact on the economy than it would have had 10 to 15 years ago."

    The fears, or lack thereof, of these two businesses reflect the alternately dire and optimistic forecasts for the region's economy if the 61-year-old base at the south end of Tampa's peninsula were to contract or close.

    Conjecture about that possibility took on a new urgency last week after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld discussed moving CentCom, the MacDill-based command that runs U.S. forces from Africa to southeast Asia.

    But his remarks aren't the only reason for anxiety. Next year, a new base realignment commission is likely to convene. An estimated 30 bases worldwide could be affected.

    Having escaped several rounds of base closures in the early 1990s, leaders around Tampa Bay are quick to link arms in defense of one of the region's largest employers. With politicians as powerful as U.S. House Appropriations Chairman C.W. Bill Young of Largo keenly interested in MacDill's future, closure would come only after a protracted fight.

    Too much money is at stake: According to MacDill officials, as much as $3-billion pumped into the regional economy each year. Even conservative estimates put the figure at $1-billion annually. The base's amenities -- the base exchange, two golf courses and a hospital -- attract thousands of military retirees to the area; some 200,000 live within a 50-mile radius.

    But what if the unthinkable came to pass?

    "I don't know if in 25 years we would recover from the loss of MacDill," said Tampa City Council member Bob Buckhorn, who during the early 1990s was then-Mayor Sandy Freedman's point person on the effort to save the base.

    But some economists question the notion that the impact would be so catastrophic.

    "It wouldn't be a disaster," said Mark Vitner, a senior economist at Wachovia in Charlotte, N.C. "The bay area would absorb it, but it would be a pretty big hit."

    Economist Stan Geberer also weighed the effects. "In the short run it's a significant hit on the local economy," said Geberer, who works at Fishkind & Associates, an economic consulting firm in Orlando. "The stores that immediately surround the base, the housing in the immediate area, all get hit. That lasts until there is some movement on the part of the local community to redevelop the property."

    That process of redevelopment can yield surprisingly beneficial results.

    Just look at Charleston, S.C.

    * * *

    Charleston had barely dug itself out from under the rubble of Hurricane Hugo when the economic downturn hit in the early 1990s. The announcement in 1993 that the Naval shipyard would close seemed like a death knell.

    "We thought we'd be listening to a great sucking sound," said J. Steven Dykes, the economic development director for Charleston County.

    Local officials mounted a $1-million campaign to defend the shipyard's 22,000 military and civilian jobs, he said, "but in the end I don't think it mattered what we said."

    By 1995, the gates of the shipyard, which had opened before the turn of the century, closed for good.

    "There were a lot of sailors' homes on the market at the same time," Dykes said. "There was a lot of anxiety."

    Charleston was left with a choice: Fight it or move on.

    "Some communities have mounted legal campaigns," Dykes said, referring to Philadelphia's response to the closure of its shipyard. "We made a wise decision to move on."

    Charleston's response focused in the short-term on its clout in Washington. U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., helped snag about 1,200 new high-tech Navy jobs in a space and air warfare command. That led to an additional 4,800 spin-off jobs in the private sector.

    The long-range plan depended on intense economic development. A consortium of private companies was mustered to reactivate the abandoned shipyard. When Nucor chose Charleston for a small steel mill, "that broke the spell," Dykes said.

    "From that point on we had a rollicking time up through 1999, and it's still going," he said. "Our tourism is breaking records every year."

    Within seven years of the Navy's departure, Charleston had regained 23,402 jobs, according to statistics from South Carolina's Department of Commerce.

    "We've proclaimed victory," Dykes said.

    * * *

    Getting that redevelopment process started can be agonizingly slow.

    "What usually happens is nothing," said Vitner, the Wachovia economist. "The base sits there for 20 years and nothing happens. What should happen is that government cleans up the environmental problems and sells it to the highest bidder.

    "But instead they want to micromanage everything. They form a committee and they argue about when the committee should meet," Vitner said.

    So how quickly could the Tampa Bay region rebound? Local leaders gave themselves a head start in 1992 when they assembled a reuse plan for the gargantuan property at the tip of the South Tampa peninsula.

    The site has numerous drawbacks. Like many military installations, MacDill is pocked with environmental hazards: spilled fuel, buried chemical munitions and landfills. Virtually the entire 5,700-acre parcel is prone to flooding.

    Site preparation costs would depend on the intended use. If a large-scale residential development were proposed, Buckhorn said, at least $70-million would be required just for fill to bring the site above the floodplain.

    "That doesn't cover the cost of removing the runways," he said. The base has roughly 650 acres of concrete runways that would need to be carted away if aviation were not a component of the redevelopment.

    That said, officials sketched out three basic redevelopment plans, one that relied primarily on commercial aviation and the other two with varying residential densities. Others floated the idea of a resort (building on the existing golf courses), Olympic training facilities, even Grand Prix auto racing on the inactive runways. Someone at the Tampa Parks Department suggested "hundreds of basketball, tennis or racquetball courts."

    At the time, officials grudgingly chose aviation as the best alternative.

    A decade later they remain convinced that the current use is the best use.

    Redevelopment "is not a very good option," says Al Austin, a Tampa developer who has spearheaded efforts to preserve the base. "They have some very, very big environmental problems out there."

    Still, the day may come, as it did in Orlando after the Naval Training Center closed, when such plans will be dusted off for serious consideration. After its base closed in 1998, the city of Orlando purchased about 400 acresnear downtown. The intention, Geberer said, was to enhance the downtown area with a mixture of residential, commercial, office and recreational uses.

    Putting that land and new construction back on the local tax rolls is another benefit of the redevelopment, Vitner said.

    While the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in military payroll may sound dire, Geberer said it's worth keeping in mind that the total personal income forecast for the Tampa Bay metro area in 2002 is $73.6-billion. The payroll of 7,000 MacDill employees probably represents less than 1 percent of that figure, he said.

    "There's a lot of opportunity for these sites if you have an organized community," Geberer said. "The process from active military base to active redevelopment can be seven to 10 years. That seven to 10 years can be a big hole, but it wouldn't be anywhere near the end of the world."

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