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Puerto Rico Hopes To Avoid Mistakes Of The Past If A U.S. Navy Base Closes

By Iván Román | San Juan Bureau

August 3, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

AGUADILLA, Puerto Rico -- Carlos Ruiz saw it happen once before.

Surrounded by the abandoned buildings and failed dreams that mark the old Ramey Air Force Base on Puerto Rico's northwest coast, he fears it's all about to happen again.

A generation after the military closed Ramey, where Ruiz once served as a B-52 pilot, the Pentagon is now taking steps to close Puerto Rico's largest remaining military installation, Naval Station Roosevelt Roads.

"Rosey Roads," as the locals call it, is a $300-million economic engine for this U.S. commonwealth. And Ruiz fears that its likely closure will present the same kind of problems that Ramey's shutdown in 1973 continues to deliver in this seaside community hugging the Atlantic Ocean.

"There were so many opportunities lost here," said Ruiz, 72, who retired and moved back to his nearby hometown of Aguada in 1978.

Experts say Puerto Rico must work now to see that Roosevelt Roads doesn't follow the same path as Ramey.

"We should study Ramey to see what not to do," said Elías Gutiérrez, dean of the School of Planning at the University of Puerto Rico. "There in Aguadilla, they made all the mistakes that you shouldn't make."

Roosevelt Roads -- built amid the fever of World War II to be the Pearl Harbor of the Atlantic and one of the prime outposts for the U.S. Navy during the Cold War -- seems to be marching toward closure. With its bombing-practice runs now forever halted on nearby Vieques island and Navy commanders already dismantling some operations, people sense that its days are numbered.

Eight of its 23 commands are already gone or about to leave. Some 2,770 military personnel or civilians will be laid off or transferred by year's end -- along with another 3,500 if the base is closed for good. Even the commander of the Atlantic Fleet said earlier this year that Rosey Roads wouldn't serve a significant purpose for the Navy once the bombing stopped.

Many expected Rosey Roads to fall in the next round of military base closings in 2005. But bolstered by the transfer of troops already under way, a U.S. House committee voted this month to close it by early next year, a move that still could be resisted by the Senate.

As the debate swirls, Ruiz has a sense of déjà vu, and a fear of what's to come.

He has reason: Big dreams for Puerto Rico to capitalize on Ramey never fully materialized after the military moved out. Instead, abandoned hulks of buildings stand next to development that has fallen far short of the original expectations.

Back in 1965, just days after the U.S. invasion of Santo Domingo, Ruiz started flying B-52s out of the air base. Cargo and warplanes roaring off what is still the longest runway in the Caribbean were mere background noise to hundreds of families in plain military homes graced by spectacular sunsets.

Now, 30 years after the Air Force packed up and left, the elegant officer's club where Ruiz danced with his wife is long closed. Nearby stands the concrete shell of a building that once housed the base hospital, open to the sea breeze with its windows and doors missing.

Today, many of the cookie-cutter homes have been fixed up by civilians. Busy college campuses and a cargo airport have forged a new community.

But it is not what everyone hoped would replace Ramey. Weeds grow through cracks in the neglected, underused runway.

"They let the hangars deteriorate so much that now what you see are balls of rust, and the tank that used to supply water to all of us is an eyesore," Ruiz said.

What happened -- or didn't happen -- at Ramey holds crucial lessons for Puerto Rico as the commonweath faces losing Roosevelt Roads.

While some fight to keep Rosey Roads open, others push to avoid a repeat of the lost opportunities at Ramey, which fell victim to poor planning, petty rivalries and partisan politics.

Puerto Rico's response to Ramey's closing, Gutiérrez said, "was a mess. They articulated no vision nor put money into it because the economy was bad and because of politics."

Some 12,000 people lived on Ramey when it closed. The U.S. leased 3,900 acres to the island's government, which shelved a master plan, planners say, and instead farmed out pieces to various agencies.

The government changed hands three years later, adding to the turmoil and repair limbo. The base's dairy closed, empty buildings gathered rust and dust, and some of the homes once teeming with airmen and their families declined.

When Ruiz retired and returned to the old base to look at buying a home, he was shocked that things were in such bad shape.

"They showed me a house that had a dog's skeleton on the floor of the living room, totally abandoned," said Ruiz, who now runs the Ramey AFB Historical Association.

Houses eventually were fixed and sold to civilians. Ruiz and other veterans teamed up to save the ailing, oceanside golf course with palm trees swaying in the breeze. Two college campuses and the Coast Guard moved in.

But big plans to assemble DeLorean sports cars fizzled out when the factory was built in Northern Ireland instead. And political infighting doomed repeated attempts to make Ramey's 11,700-foot runway into a new international airport.

The neglect in other areas became all the more obvious next to the houses, hotels and small businesses that have gone up around the old base.

"The same thing would happen to Roosevelt Roads if we're not careful," said retired Lt. Col. Buenaventura Esteves López, 81, who lived at Ramey for several years and had a hand in frustrated attempts to redevelop it. "There has to be one independent entity to plan it all and run it all that has the authority to coordinate it."

Chastised by the past, the government is thinking along those same lines.

Spurred by the House vote, a special Governor's Commission asked several companies this month to develop a master plan for Roosevelt Roads' 8,600 acres if it closes.

"I think it's wise to start thinking in that way,"' said Thomas Markham, vice president of the National Association of Installation Developers (NAID), which helps local communities convert closed military bases. "If there were lessons learned in the past, it is that the community spent a lot more time fighting the closure than preparing for it."

Just a few years ago, closing Roosevelt Roads was unthinkable.

Even in the post-Cold War era, it served as a vital military center, playing host to surveillance and anti-drug missions in Latin America and the Caribbean. But a big part of its mission was supporting the simultaneous air, land and amphibious training that occurred on Vieques until earlier this year.

Once the practice bombing formally stopped on May 1, clear signs of Rosey Roads' future began arriving in the form of layoff notices.

"I'm close to accepting it will close," said Gerardo Cruz, mayor of Ceiba, the city that hosts the base. "They didn't really need to close Roosevelt Roads given concerns about homeland security, drug trafficking and its strategic location.

"But the reality is, they've been shutting it down piece by piece."

Recognizing one battle may be lost, officials are now pushing to fend off attempts in Congress to sell off the 8,600 acres on the island's eastern tip. Island officials want the Pentagon to give the property to the community.

"If they don't give us the land, they'll drown us economically," Cruz said. "We have to act faster than ever to make sure we get the land."

Many of the base's nine deep-channel piers could handle the biggest cruise and cargo ships. The channels are minutes away from an 11,000-foot runway, the second-longest in the Caribbean, a great combination for tourism and industrial/cargo ventures.

Attractions ranging from a rainforest and a phosphorescent bay to marinas and luxury seaside resorts are nearby.

"It's the heart of boating, where there are keys and crystal blue water all over,"' said Julio E. Rivera, First Bank of Puerto Rico's senior vice president for real estate and development loans. "It's where the Virgin Islands start, where in four hours you can be on a deserted paradise island without having to fly anywhere. As we say in real estate, it's location, location, location."

But making those dreams become reality -- rather than having them languish like plans for Ramey -- is the key.

National experience shows that closed bases near urban areas tend to have the best chances of redevelopment -- attracting local and federal aid and private investment.

For example, San Juan's old Isla Grande navy base, closed nearly 40 years ago, is finally taking shape as site of a $1.2 billion convention center-hotel complex.

Some projects turn around faster. In Orlando, the tony Baldwin Park neighborhood is rising fast from the rubble of the old Naval Training Center, and McCoy Air Force Base was redeveloped into Orlando International Airport after the base closed in the 1970s.

"Can it be done? Yes," said Jeffrey Simon, a NAID director. "It takes political will and political leadership and it takes time. And they are long developments."

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