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How to Salvage Community through Defense Conversion

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The U.S. Department of Defense closed more than 350 U.S. military installations between 1988 and 2005, including more than 100 large military bases. These communities face serious financial, environmental, and political challenges to redevelop their closed bases. Many communities questioned whether full base conversion and recovery was possible.

Base closures have resulted in one of the largest transfers of federal property in recent U.S. history. Yet, closed bases are often liabilities, not assets. The facilities are disconnected from surrounding cities and require extensive environmental remediation. Planning and financing is a multifaceted political and administrative process crossing multiple jurisdiction and scales. Community members expect to replace lost jobs and revenue that accompany closures, but this takes significant time and does not occur in many cases. The stakes surrounding defense conversion are thus high: whether and how redevelopment occurs can make or break American communities.

The stakes surrounding defense conversion are thus high: whether and how redevelopment occurs can make or break American communities.

Military redevelopment is complex and requires heightened attention to regulatory interaction across different levels of government, as well as across different civic and private actors. Our research emphasizes the long-term nature of these efforts since project build-outs and environmental rehabilitation take decades to complete, while markets fluctuate and communities change. However, strong governance creates the foundation to weather these crises and maximize redevelopment opportunities for long-term resilience.

Good governance helps communities navigate the conversion process and achieve broad public benefits. In contrast, places with weak governance sometimes never convert bases or cede the benefits of defense conversion to private interests. Having broader sets of redevelopment partners across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors results in more public–oriented land-use in redevelopment. These outcomes include creating economic opportunities for the poor, creating mixed-income communities, building affordable housing, designing equitable green spaces, and planning for civic areas.

What Can Communities Do?

Communities are not in control of market forces or the level of remediation necessary to begin redeveloping a base. But, communities can anticipatemany redevelopment challenges through collaborative arrangements and partnerships. The extent to which communities use their agency to build a redevelopment coalition and pursue values “larger than local” explains a good share of redevelopment success.

Revenue canrebound, and defense conversion can benefit broad groups of stakeholders– even if many of the lost jobs do not return or target a different workforce and economic sector. Strategic planning, collaborative governance, incremental project build-out, integration of isolated areas, and equitably financed dealscan all help to convert bases while also providing community benefits

The extent to which communities use their agency to build a redevelopment coalition and pursue values “larger than local” explains a good share of redevelopment success.

Local and regional governments can get ahead of conversion challenges by identifying site assets and liabilities, selecting and securing public/private/civic partnerships, and financing project implementation. Communities can also engage stakeholders to ensure a transparent and collaborative development process.

Well-positioned communities require additional staff and assistance from consultants to achieve their redevelopment goals. For example, hiring environmental consultants to estimate remediation costs is much cheaper than remaining ignorant of remediation problems. Local governments can also purchase environmental insurance to hedge against remediation cost-overruns or the discovery of new hazards. Insurance policies are available and could save communities from potential bankruptcy as they convert former bases.

Taking control of the redevelopment process lets local governments make the best of a bad situation and ultimately convert closed bases in the public interest. This is easier said than done, of course, but strong redevelopment governance combined with good planning can help convert bases and salvage communities across the country. 


Michael Touchton and Amanda Ashley are the authors of Salvaging Community: How American Cities Rebuild Closed Military Bases. Out now from Cornell University Press.

Dr. Michael Touchton is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami. Professor Touchton studies local governance and development in a comparative setting. His work appears in top Political Science and interdisciplinary publications including The American Political Science Review, Comparative Political Studies, World Development, Political Research Quarterly, and The Journal of the American Planning Association. He received his Ph. D. from the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Dr. Amanda Ashley is an Associate Professor of Urban Studies at Boise State University. Professor Ashley studies placemaking as an economic and community development framework. Her work appears in top urban planning and urban studies journals including the Journal of the American Planning Association, the Journal of Planning Research and Education, the Journal of Planning History, Journal of Urban History, Urban Affairs Review, and the Social Science Journal. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. 

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