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Minor support to Fort Buchanan’s BRAC inclusion; BRAC commissioners chosen

Roosevelt Roads redevelopment in final stages as Ceiba / Naguabo residents remain under grim economic strains


April 14, 2005
Copyright © 2005 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Secretary of State Marisara Pont’s remarks during her confirmation hearings about the need to unite and save Fort Buchanan from the federal government’s Base Realignment & Closure (BRAC) process momentarily hindered her confirmation to the executive post when Bayamón Mayor Ramón Luis Rivera took exception.

Mayor Rivera met with Pont last week to discuss the issue and indicated he would support any efforts to keep the military base open as well as her confirmation as secretary of state. Meanwhile, the BRAC process continues in Washington, D.C., where President George W. Bush circumvented Sen. Trent Lott’s (R-Miss.) attempt to block the BRAC Commission’s nominations from being voted on by the Senate.

President Bush proceeded to install the BRAC Commission’s members by recess appointment, appointing former Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi as head. Others named to the commission are former Rep. James H. Bilbray (D-Nev.); Philip Coyle, an assistant Defense secretary under President Bill Clinton; retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr.; former Rep. James Hansen (R-Utah); retired Army Gen. James Hill; retired Air Force Gen. Lloyd Warren Newton; Samuel K. Skinner, who was White House chief of staff and Transportation secretary under President George H.W. Bush; and retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Sue Ellen Turner.

In related news, Gov. Acevedo Vilá recently held a press conference asking for funding for the local High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area offices in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The U.S. National Drug Control Office wants to cut funding by $127 million to $100 million for fiscal 2006. After the closure of Naval Station Roosevelt Roads in Ceiba, Puerto Rico’s eastern region has become a key entrance for drug smuggling from South America to North America.

"Roosevelt Roads had the necessary services to intercept drug smuggling," said Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuño to CARIBBEAN BUSINESS during a press conference to gain support from veterans groups for a resolution to keep Fort Buchanan active in Puerto Rico. "This ended after the naval station was closed. Now, the eastern region is like a colander for drug smugglers bringing their merchandise from South America on its way to North America. If we don’t join efforts to keep Fort Buchanan open, it will be closed just like Roosevelt Roads."

Regarding the state government’s efforts to get funding to prevent Puerto Rico from being used for drug smuggling activities, Fortuño also said, "We cannot continue to approach the U.S. Congress with outstretched hands asking for funds to fix our problems without offering something in return. It is important that a show of support for Fort Buchanan occur soon, and Gov. Acevedo Vilá will have to lead this effort."

On Saturday, April 16 at 9 a.m., veterans organizations will hold a rally in front of Fort Buchanan to express their support for the military base. Among the groups participating will be Disabled American Veterans, American Legion, Blind Veterans Association, Paralyzed Veterans Association, Vietnam Veterans Association Chapter 59, and 65th Infantry & Veterans Association. Each group has agreed to support a resolution Fortuño will present before the U.S. House of Representatives requesting Fort Buchanan remain active in Puerto Rico.

The veterans organizations are also supporting a resolution to build a new Veterans Medical Center in Puerto Rico. According to the resolution’s draft, Puerto Rico deserves quality service for its active personnel and veterans as it has 80% of the Puerto Rico Reserve and 50% of U.S. National Guard members active in the war on terrorism; the 16th highest overall contribution rate in the U.S. Army Reserves and National Guard; and the 6th highest per capita contribution of all states and territories.

"In 1999, the U.S. Congress appropriated $50 million to correct the seismic problems at the [Veterans Affairs Medical Center] through the construction of a new bed tower, but the allocated funds constituted only half the requested amount and the project was deemed unfeasible," read the resolution. "In January 2004, an additional $29 million was included for this project that has yet to begin. But if the proposed 314-bed patient tower were to be constructed, it would still not fully resolve the pressing infrastructure and safety issues that affect services provided by the [Veterans Affairs Medical Center]."

According to the resolution, the cost to repair the existing center would exceed $250 million.

Roosevelt Roads redevelopment plans continue

In other news, Economic Development & Commerce Department (EDCD) Secretary-Designate Jorge Silva revealed the U.S. Department of Housing has endorsed Roosevelt Roads’ redevelopment plan. In December 2004, the Roosevelt Roads Local Redevelopment Authority (LRA) submitted a land-use plan to the Department of Defense and the Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD), federal agencies that participate in the LRA process. The plan includes redeveloping 6,125 acres of the naval base’s 8,600 acres into nine mixed-use zones over 30 years, with the possible creation of 20,000 jobs.

"HUD determined the LRA plan presented an adequate balance of the communities’ and homeless people’s needs, with the critical elements for optimal economic development of the area," said Silva. "In addition, the plan complies with the applicable federal law. This endorsement allows the implementation of the redevelopment plan as conceived by the EDCD. Once the U.S. Navy fulfills the environmental evaluations that are required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the land transferences, and the subsequent actions to put into action the redevelopment plan will begin as well."

The LRA’s plan considers using about 2,000 acres that include the 11,000-foot airport runway, Bundy area, golf course, urban center, residential area, port area, and beach / coastline zone. Plans are underway to build a scientific research park. The former base hospital and health facilities would be run by private groups and a homeless shelter, HUD’s only requirement for the LRA plan, will be part of the plan.

An additional 3,400 acres of wetlands and mangroves will be transferred to the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust for preservation. In addition, 212 acres will be transferred to federal government agencies, including 45 acres to the Homeland Security Department, 75 acres to the U.S. Customs Service, and 90 acres to the U.S. Army Reserve.

"The U.S. Navy does get to keep, and sell at what will probably be prime market value, most of the residential or commercial property," said EDCD Consultant Francisco Pavía, who participated in the design of the land redevelopment plan under the Calderón administration. According to CARIBBEAN BUSINESS estimates, this could be approximately 1,500 acres in prime areas such as waterfront zones.

"The U.S. Navy has limited procedures to dispose of property and their primary way is to sell it. There are public benefit conveyances (PBC) for particular uses that allow for property to be transferred at no cost. For example, there are PBC for airports, port facilities, health services, and recreational and conservation areas; but there is no PBC for residential or commercial property and that land will be sold by the U.S. Navy."

The closing of Roosevelt Roads has had a devastating economic impact on the residents of Ceiba, Naguabo, and nearby towns. People have lost their jobs, most residents have no means or educational background to establish a new business, and the grants distributed by the government toward the end of 2004 will soon end. During a town hall meeting held in Ceiba with EDCD Secretary Jorge Silva, questions from the residents were few regarding the redevelopment plan. There was much more concern and downright anguish expressed by the region’s residents, many of them business owners, who wanted to know how the project was going to really help the affected municipalities rise from bankruptcy and help improve the actual lack of economic activity. Worst of all, there was a perceived notion that whatever is happening at Roosevelt Roads will have no economic impact on them.

Puerto Rico Commerce & Export Co. Designated Director Ricardo Rivera, after a walk-through of Ceiba’s town center with EDCD Secretary Silva, promised he would find ways to provide government incentives for the creation of new businesses, for training, and to provide government-owned buildings to establish businesses.

Military sources contacted by CARIBBEAN BUSINESS have said Puerto Rico shouldn’t claim success yet. "The U.S. Navy knows how to sell its property very well, and it has been very successful at it for a long time," said the source. "They usually occupy the best property and make sure they recover their costs before allowing the transfer of land to other venues. We shouldn’t assume the actual redevelopment plant will work out exactly as planned, especially if the U.S. Navy has prime land in the residential and commercial areas."

Once the NEPA study is done, which Secretary Silva believes will be this summer, the Puerto Rico Planning Board should be ready to submit the area to a new rezoning plan. Developers planning to buy the land will probably wait for the new rezoning plan to submit their bids. It is estimated the U.S. Navy will begin to sell its remaining Roosevelt Roads property by early 2006.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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