MYRTLE BEACH — Just outside of Beeville, Texas, are the runways and buildings of the former Chase Field Naval Air Station.
Once a facility that supported the Naval air station in Corpus Christi, an hour southeast, the runways and buildings have been quiet since Sikorsky moved its helicopter refurbishment operation out of two of the former air field’s hangars last year.
The experience of Chase is at one end of the spectrum for the first six U.S. air bases to be closed in the Base Realignment and Closure process. At the other end is the ongoing growth at the former Pease Air Force Base near Portsmouth, N.H., the first to close, and the continued development of Myrtle Beach Air Force Base, the sixth.
In between are the former Eaker Air Force Base in Blytheville, Ark., which is trying to refashion itself into a mid-America manufacturing and transportation hub, England Air Force Base near Alexandria, La., that has become the location for some new senior housing and commercial development, and George Air Force Base in Victorville, Calif., which has managed to snare a number of runway-dependent tenants, a state prison and 2,000 jobs. Victorville, though, faces significant challenges as officials work to overcome a more than $900 million debt left by a former air base development agency and restore some working hours to the air traffic control tower that is among those being closed by the Federal Aviation Administration.
“We’ve been very successful because of location, location, location,” said Dave Mullen, executive director of the Pease Development Authority, the entity formed to chart the former air base’s future when the Air Force moved out.
The Myrtle Beach Air Base Redevelopment Authority found itself with the same advantage when the local base closed 20 years ago and tourism and retiree relocation began a long period of significant growth. And the two shared another trait – a board that stood by an original redevelopment plan – that Mullen and Buddy Styers, director of the Myrtle Beach authority, said was key to their success.
Additionally, Mullen and Styers can each point to a single development that was the starting point for the good things that followed.
For Mullen, it was the day that Two International Group opened its first 87,000-square-foot building on the base, a move Mullen said some thought foolhardy. Now, the company that builds and leases space to business and industrial tenants has one million of the 4.4 million square feet of occupied space at Pease.
Styers said his moment happened in the spring of 1997, when developer David Douglas leased the former air base’s 777 units of housing and moved in to refurbish them, improve worn streets and keep the area looking good. In 2001, Douglas – whose company built and is expanding the affordable housing complex on Mr. Joe White Avenue – bought the units from the authority and sold them to individuals.
Styers said the Myrtle Beach authority netted $10.7 million from the sale of the former base housing and used the money for infrastructure updates in other areas of the 3,937-acre site.
As at Pease, Styers said that during the lull between the base closure and the Douglas lease, people lobbied for development plans that were different from the original plans, and many thought nothing was happening when there was no activity at the former bases for years. But there was a lot going on behind the scenes.
“Those first few years gave us time to position ourselves,” Mullen said.
In Myrtle Beach, the quiet time was used to improve and install infrastructure that would be needed for future development.
Mullen said the Portsmouth area, like Myrtle Beach, is a good place to live and that executives of the 250 companies that now occupy buildings on the former base can live either at the nearby New Hampshire Gold Coast or the horse country just to the west.
At last count, Mullen said, there were 7,800 employees working at the former Pease base.
In Myrtle Beach, air base redevelopment has brought in between 2,500 and 3,000 jobs so far, multiples above the 800 civilians who worked at the base when it closed in 1993.
Chase Field in Beeville had 2,000 civilian employees and supported another 1,500 in the area when it closed the same year as the Myrtle Beach Air Force Base, said Joe Montes, director of the Beeville Development Authority. While the state of Texas built a prison on 300 acres of the former air station’s land, the 2,000 people it employs take home about one-sixth of what the federal government paid Chase employees.
Businesses have closed in town and the population’s dropped since the closure, and now the prison is losing employees to an oil-fueled boom in a 3,000-square-mile, newly-discovered natural gas and oil field formation about 30 miles from town.
“There’s hundreds of oil companies here,” Montes said.
While Chase Field has seen an increase in corporate jet traffic from the boom, Montes doesn’t want the air field become an oil-connected development site. The equipment is dirty and heavy, he said, and such activity wouldn’t be to the long-term benefit of the two air field hangars.
The town invested more than $10 million to refurbish the two hangars and built a $1.3 million helicopter paint facility in one of them to lure the Sikorsky business.
“I think the federal government has done it wrong,” Montes said of the process following base closure.
He said Beeville was offered plenty of consultation, but what the town really needed was jobs to replace those that took off when Chase Field closed. Instead of talk, he said the feds should have made military contractors move operations onto the vacated bases.
“We were dry for 11 years,” Monte said. “Very, very, very little small development came in.”
The Myrtle Beach base is the only among the first six that has thrived in a mixed-use atmosphere that has significant retail space, recreation fields, higher education facilities, a variety of housing built and under development, as well as a healthy commercial airport.
England, the former base near Alexandria, La., has mixed use as well with senior housing, a commercial airport and a golf course, but the development there is not as broad-based as in Myrtle Beach. George in California, now called the Southern California Logistics Airport, has a 3,000-inmate prison on its land.
Styers, a retired Air Force colonel, said that when he became director of the Myrtle Beach authority in 1995, at least some of the board members were unsure what the centerpiece urban village in the original plan meant.
“Every time they heard the words ‘urban village,’” Styers said, “they’d look at me and say ‘What the heck is that?’”
He commended them for sticking to the plan, though, and said the non-political makeup of the board was important in allowing that to happen. Mullen said he is in a similar position in that just three of his board’s seven members are from the immediate area, meaning they have to convince one of the other four to carry a vote for something they want.
Styers said nearly all of the authority’s property has been purchased for development, but added that the authority will stay open at least as long as it takes the Air Force to complete its cleanup of the small remaining areas that were contaminated with solvents, fuel or other substances during the base’s tenure on the land.
Mullen said there are still 60 upland acres at Pease where he estimates he can build another one million square feet of space for future tenants.
Neither he nor Styers were sure of the current value either in payroll, taxes or other fees of the former Air Force property whose conversion they have shepherded. But officials in Myrtle Beach, at least, are well aware of the benefits from what’s happened at the former base.
Myrtle Beach, Horry County and Horry Schools currently split $1.1 million in annual taxes, an amount that will climb to at least $3.6 million after the increased tax revenue pays off more than $41 million in bonds sold to help with infrastructure and the multi-purpose recreational fields, said city spokesman Mark Kruea.
Further, he said the new development that started recently on the base is one of two keys to the area moving out of the great recession, the second being a resurgence of tourism.
“It’s tremendously important,” he said of the base development. “That’s where we’re seeing most of the new housing growth, the new commercial growth.”
Montes, in Texas, remains optimistic that Chase Field will eventually pay off for Beeville despite more than 20 years of little activity. He said two companies recently planned to move in, but they balked with the federal government’s sequester.
“It’s going to work out in the end,” he said, “but for the time it’s rough.”