Rebuilding Communities after the Military Leaves Town

Authored By 
Alison Kanosky
Blog contributor 
Policy Fellow

(Updated Feb.27, 2014)

On March 4th, Congress will start considering various ways to downsize the military. The Base Realignment and Closure Commission, or BRAC, is expected to reappear in the National Defense Authorization Act as a proposed measure to reign in defense spending.  If that measure passes, BRAC would close dozens of domestic military installations in 2017, continuing a policy that has existed in some form since the 1980s. Facilities that could face closure from a new round of downsizing include bases and depots—where the military manufactures and stores materials—employing service people and civilians alike. Political commentators have anticipated that Congress members seeking re-election may refuse to approve the BRAC provision, as moving forward with BRAC before the 2016 election cycle could be too politically risky. But a singular focus on whether or not to close facilities ignores the question of how to build a vibrant future for communities as they transition out of defense-related work.

Calls to maintain a huge military infrastructure at any cost have been omnipresent in the U.S. since the 1940s, leading to a tremendous expansion of the domestic footprint of the military over the second half of the twentieth century. However, efforts to downsize that footprint have gained political traction in recent decades. There have been five rounds of BRAC closures to date, shuttering hundreds of military installations no longer considered essential to the current needs of the military.

Despite this precedent, members of Congress still see base closures as political poison (dramatized on House of Cards in Season 1 by the closure of a naval facility in Congressman Russo’s district), which is why they rail against closures even as Congress as a whole has repeatedly reauthorized BRAC. But the problems associated with military downsizing are not just political. On the ground, the aftermath of a BRAC closure can be an economic disaster for communities near military installations, with harmful effects lasting years or even decades.

A few characteristics can make defense communities more vulnerable to a BRAC closure. These very characteristics also make it harder for those places to recover after a military closure. Older installations are more likely to close, as their infrastructure is less relevant to modern military priorities. But environmental contamination is likely to be a significant additional concern near older facilities, as safety and environmental regulations were nearly non-existent in the first half of the 20th century. For these facilities, environmental contamination is not only an ecological problem; it can also make the process of economic redevelopment after BRAC slower and more difficult. Installations that are geographically isolated are also more likely to face closure, as there is no longer a need to scatter stockpiles of weapons in remote places, as there was during the Cold War (see The Missile Next Door for an excellent account of the demilitarization of missile silos in the Great Plains).

These characteristics—isolation and environmental contamination—also make it nearly impossible for communities to attract employers that can offer as many jobs as the military once did. For rural communities, losing a military installation can truly mean losing the best job in town—or, often, the best job in a commutable distance from town, furthering out-migration that already plagues isolated places. Add to that the economic, ecological and health-related effects of environmental contamination, and the outcome can be devastating.

In theory, the BRAC process could be an opportunity for communities to put former defense holdings to use for purposes that best serve locals’ social, cultural and economic needs. Communities could use this time to redevelop former sites of weapons storage as affordable housing, educational or health institutions, public services like libraries or nature preserves or parks, or to bring in private businesses.
But there is a long lag between when BRAC announces its closure list and when a community can reclaim and redevelop its land. The Department of Defense often encourages communities to take back former bases without first having them cleaned up, cutting costs for the military but leaving the community solely responsible for remedying or living with any remaining environmental hazards. If a community rejects an unconditional early transfer of land, the Department of Defense is required to conduct environmental remediation before transferring the property back to the community. This can be an arduous and indefensibly slow process: places like the Savanna Army Depot  in rural northwest Illinois have been closed for over a decade, but the Army is many years away from transferring the majority of the property back to the community.  In the meantime, replacing the jobs the depot once supported is a far-off prospect, despite community members’ best efforts.

Former defense communities need stronger advocates in the federal government, both in Congress and in the Department of Defense. A decision on reauthorizing BRAC need not be put off for another year or two if politicians are committed to rebuilding communities that are transitioning away from a defense-based economy. If Congress truly believes in BRAC as a way to reduce military spending, then its focus should be less on dodging responsibility for closures prior to elections and more on formulating policies that lead to the expedient revitalization of BRAC communities.

Alison Kanosky is an ISPS Policy Fellow and a fourth-year graduate student in American Studies. Her research explores the lived experience of social and economic changes in U.S. communities.

Area of study 
State & Local