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Defense’s federal base closure program likely to include Fort Buchanan

Resigned to realignment or possible loss of $200 million to economy if base is closed


May 13, 2005
Copyright © 2005 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Government and military sources in Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. are resigned to the fact that Puerto Rico’s last military base, Fort Buchanan, will be included on the Department of Defense’s (DOD) 2005 Base Realignment & Closure (BRAC) list.

By the time this edition of CARIBBEAN BUSINESS is published, the BRAC list is expected to have been released to the public. While U.S. Congress members, whose states may also suffer base closures or realignments, may try to delay or cancel the 2005 BRAC round of base closings, President George W. Bush has already threatened to veto the fiscal 2006 defense authorization bill if an attempt is made.

Some BRAC Commission members are also concerned the DOD’s congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), currently being conducted, will render their work obsolete. The QDR is a Pentagon analysis of the U.S. defense planning model focusing on capabilities (vs. threats) and how adversaries might fight, rather than whom the adversaries might be, or where a war may occur.

The 2005 BRAC Commission

Those seeking to keep Fort Buchanan open should be concerned about the Army installation’s future and the loss of approximately $200 million to Puerto Rico’s economy following the ill will generated from the ouster of the U.S. Navy from Vieques and subsequent closing of Naval Station Roosevelt Roads in Ceiba. According to military sources, some members of the 2005 BRAC Commission may not be "friends" of Puerto Rico for exactly these same reasons. They are:

  • Former Rep. James Hansen, a former member of the House Armed Services Committee, who was a staunch defender of the U.S. Navy in Vieques and may not feel benevolent toward the island.
  • Retired U.S. Army Gen. James T. Hill, who was commanding general of the U.S. Southern Command under which Puerto Rico was included. Hill retired before the island was transferred to the U.S. Northern Command, but even under his command, he never intervened in Vieques, stating it was a U.S. Navy issue and not a unified command matter. In addition, U.S. South General Alfredo Valenzuela served under his command when the military unit was transferred to Texas. Sources say it isn’t likely Hill will come out in favor of the island.
  • U.S. Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr., former commander in chief of the U.S. Joint Forces / NATO Supreme Allied Commander, will probably be biased after the Vieques / Roosevelt Roads affair.

On the positive end

  • BRAC Commission President Anthony Principi, a former secretary of Veterans Affairs, knows Puerto Rico and has influential friends on the island. Principi told Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuño he would send two commissioners to inspect Fort Buchanan if the base appears on the closure list.

Members with no apparent ties to Puerto Rico

  • Retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Sue Ellen Turner;
  • Samuel Skinner, former secretary of Transportation and chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush;
  • Former Rep. James Bilbray, member of the House Armed Services Committee;
  • Retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Lloyd Warren Newton; and
  • Philip Coyle III, assistant secretary of Defense under President Bill Clinton

A grim outlook for Fort Buchanan

"Fort Buchanan has to transform itself, and we need the political will to do so," said retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Patrick Balcázar. "Fort Buchanan will remain on the BRAC list unless local citizens in Puerto Rico take a two-step course of action. First, the island’s citizens, through their leaders, must clearly state their willingness to integrate the entire Puerto Rican society to be a team player for the defense of the U.S. Then we must develop an understanding of [DOD’s] present and future needs to equip, prepare, organize, and execute the task of defending the homeland."

Although BRAC is mostly linked to base closings, realignment is also an important part. Today, Fort Buchanan is a U.S. Army Reserve post, the military’s southernmost base, strategically located near the Mona Passage and its global trade routes. It is the only U.S. Army Power Support Base in the region, including the Caribbean and South America. With an underestimated economic impact to Puerto Rico of more than $200 million annually, Fort Buchanan provides services to more than 100,000 people, including active duty, reservists, civilian, retired personnel, federal agency employees, and their families.

Realignment may keep the base open

"I am more optimistic we may be realigned, particularly since Fort Buchanan has already gone through one realignment process successfully," said U.S. Army Retired General Félix Santoni, whose position as civilian aide to the secretary of the Army in Puerto Rico was recently renewed. "The U.S. Navy Reserve may be moving its operations to Fort Buchanan, which will turn the base into a joint military operation. The repeal of the building moratorium is likely, and the Puerto Rico National Guard will be able to construct new facilities at Fort Buchanan as well. I feel all in all that the U.S. Army wishes to keep Fort Buchanan open."

The 2005 BRAC Commission will look at a base’s military value, how it fits into the DOD’s operations and transformation plans, and its capability and ability to perform cross-service missions.

"The most effective way to get a base off the Pentagon’s list still might be the tried-and-true method of providing [BRAC] commissioners with in-depth analysis of how individual installations fit into the military’s future plans," said Paul Hirsch, a member of the 1991 commission and a BRAC lobbyist for Madison Government Affairs. Puerto Rico did manage to dodge the bullet during the 1998 BRAC process. Fort Buchanan was taken off the BRAC list when U.S. Army South decided to relocate from Panama to Puerto Rico. U.S. Army South could have injected more than $200 million in public works and infrastructure to the military installation, not to mention doubling the current $200 million economic impact for the region. Unfortunately, U.S. Army South relocated its command to San Antonio, Texas, in 2002, leaving Fort Buchanan exposed.

The U.S. Congress-imposed building moratorium in 2002, a result of the U.S. Navy’s ouster from Vieques and the closure of Ceiba’s Roosevelt Roads, prevented the much needed public works construction that could have enhanced the base’s military readiness. If the building moratorium was repealed, the Puerto Rico National Guard and U.S. Army Reserve could implement a realignment plan for Fort Buchanan that would provide savings on operational costs and manpower as well as add military value to the installation (CB March 31).

The plan includes building a $17.5 million Readiness Training Center and English-Language Training School for military recruits that would add approximately 1,100 soldiers to Fort Buchanan’s population.

In addition, 17 military units would be relocated and six units activated; a Multiunit Readiness Center and an Armed Forces Readiness Center added; and six federal agencies relocated on post. Fort Buchanan would then become a base for unit activations, enhance recruiting and retention opportunities for military occupational specialties from the pool of more than 95,000 college students in the area, and expand leadership and professional development opportunities among commissioned and noncommissioned officers as assignments increase.

Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuño has met with members of Congress to seek support for the permanency of the island’s remaining military bastion and the repeal of a building moratorium on Fort Buchanan. He also has no doubt Fort Buchanan will be part of the 2005 BRAC process.

"I have been working on two strategies to prevent the closure of Fort Buchanan with members of Congress and the White House," said Fortuño. "One strategy is that Congress assigns funds for the construction of a specific project in Fort Buchanan. The second strategy is to add specific language to the [fiscal 2006’s] defense budget to lift the building moratorium. I can’t tell when either of these measures will be implemented, but I expect some results soon so it can be used in the BRAC Commission’s analysis of Fort Buchanan."

In April, Secretary of State Designate Marisara Pont, Secretary of Economic Development & Commerce Jorge Silva, and Puerto Rico National Guard Adjutant General Francisco Márquez traveled to Washington, D.C., where Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration Executive Director Eduardo Bhatia had scheduled meetings with members of Congress to discuss the repeal of the base’s building moratorium.

"The goal of Secretary Pont to keep Fort Buchanan as an active federal installation is a step in the right direction," said Balcázar. "But a more forceful statement of public and political will would be if Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, along with the two key political parties, the Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce, business and academic leaders had made that statement on a daily basis. We need to show how we can transform Fort Buchanan into a model installation to protect against present and future threats to Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland."

More than $200 million in economic losses expected if Fort Buchanan closes

If Puerto Rico’s Fort Buchanan closes because of perceived inaction by political, state, municipal, and private entities to support the last military installation on the island, more than $200 million to Puerto Rico’s economy will be lost.

According to an April 2002 U.S. General Accounting Office report on military-base closures, "Overcoming the negative economic impact of base closures or realignments on local communities, including the loss of perhaps thousands of jobs, has long been a concern for their citizens, as well as members of Congress. Local community officials attributed their recovery to a number of factors, including a strong national economy, diversified local economies, and the redevelopment of former base property, all…which play key roles in unemployment rates and income levels."

Communities do recover from the BRAC process when a base is realigned or closed, but the transition isn’t easy. Take the example of Naval Station Roosevelt Roads in Ceiba, which invested $250 million to $300 million to operate the base and another $100 million in off-base expenditures. In 2003, the base was home to nearly 10,000 military personnel and their dependents along with more than 2,500 civilian employees. After the November 2003 announcement the base would be closed by 2004, all U.S. Navy personnel were transferred to other bases in the U.S. and foreign countries, turning Ceiba into one of the poorest municipalities in Puerto Rico.

In November 2003, the Department of Defense recognized the Department of Economic Development & Commerce as the Local Redevelopment Authority (LRA) to develop a land-use plan and select a committee to oversee the process. By March 31, 2004, when Roosevelt Roads finally closed, the 10-member committee was made up of two community representatives nominated by then-Gov. Sila Calderón and eight government-agency heads.

Approximately $1.3 billion was invested in the land-use plan for Roosevelt Roads. Ceiba’s residents, some joining community groups and others on their own, demanded the government offer economic support and redevelopment ideas for the town.

It wasn’t until the November 2004 elections that the government announced it would distribute $15 million in economic development assistance to Ceiba and Naguabo communities with approximately 1,000 individuals benefiting from the grants.

Too little, too late

Ceiba now is described as a ghost town because the severe impact of poverty is noticed when you walk along its streets. Approximately 5,500 residents were employed during fiscal 2004 with a per capita income of $9,256. A total of 1,298 residents out of 18,206 (a mere 7% of the population) have a bachelor’s degree. In addition, from January 2003 to September 2004, there were 60 bankruptcies reported in Ceiba.

Bayamón and Guaynabo are the two municipalities surrounding Fort Buchanan’s 746 acres. Needless to say, it would favor them if the base were to close and the property were transferred to their respective municipalities.

Urban areas such as these two will handle the base’s disappearance from an economic standpoint much better than Ceiba. Other non-San Juan metro area municipalities with base closings haven’t fared any better, including Aguadilla’s Ramey Air Force Base, Salinas’ U.S. Army Fort Allen, and Toa Baja’s U.S. Naval Security Group Activity Sabana Seca, whose municipal coffers have felt the loss of steady economic income from the bases’ operations.

Still, the plan shared by Bayamón and Guaynabo to keep Fort Buchanan open includes industrialization, where the LRA of these municipalities would manage the area’s underutilized property to generate jobs and economic development opportunities.

The plan includes maintenance services and managing the base’s housing and school properties. Can the LRA maintain the traditional levels of quality to which the military is accustomed? Another concern is financing, since the LRA is depending on federal grants and support from foundations for start-up funding.

The island’s public and private sectors should look closer at what the past has left behind when other military installations closed. It may be much more expensive and catastrophic in the long run for Puerto Rico if we choose to sit back and allow Fort Buchanan to close forever.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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