Rosy outlook of closed MacDill turns gloomy
A positive 1992 study of how a closed MacDill AFB may be redeveloped is no longer relevant, many say.
By PAUL DE LA GARZA, Times Staff Writer
Published April 4, 2005
TAMPA - If MacDill Air Force Base closed, the redeveloped land on the tip of South Tampa could look something like this:
--Luxury homes by the water with views of downtown and St. Petersburg, as well as apartments and housing for military retirees.
--A stadium for baseball spring training, an Olympic training facility for rowing, cross country skiing, or speed skating - and perhaps even a movie studio.
--Canoe trails for nature lovers along the wetlands and mangroves, providing rare glimpses of river otters and bald eagles.
That was how, in 1992, city planners and more than 100 educational, financial and civic advisers envisioned MacDill emerging, after a federal commission decided to close part of the base, according to an exhaustive, 600-page study of alternative uses for MacDill commissioned by the city of Tampa.
"The location of the planning area within the peninsula, combined with the natural water setting provide an opportunity to create a new residential community," the study said. "There is sufficient land ... to create a diverse residential community, complete with a range of housing units, supporting commercial uses, institutional uses, recreational activities and natural areas."
The committees that produced the study examined several uses, but in the end they recommended keeping the air base as an airport. "Any of these scenarios is possible under the right conditions," the study said.
Thirteen years later, the study is notable because it contradicts the gloomy assessment by those fighting to keep MacDill open during the current round of base closings. In mid May the Base Realignment Closure Commissio n is scheduled to release a list of bases recommended to be closed.
MacDill supporters argue that if it closed, the property would be rendered all but useless, contaminated by decades of military use and prone to flooding. They say the cost of redeveloping MacDill would be prohibitive.
The 1992 study saw contamination and flooding as obstacles but also saw opportunity.
It noted that the federal government would be required to clean up any contaminated land on base. According to Air Force estimates, the government has spent $20-million cleaning up MacDill since the mid 1980s and will spend another $20-million over five years to clean up additional pockets of contamination.
"MacDill is not that bad," said Jim Cason, a geologist with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. "It's pretty clean."
In 1992, the nation was in a recession, the real estate market was soft, and the financial industry was saddled with bad debt. Also, only part of the base was scheduled to close: 3,600 acres of almost 6,000 acres. The study said opportunities for redeveloping MacDill would be even better if the entire base closed - and it pointed to another round of base closures in 1993 and 1995.
"Since the base has an existing infrastructure, recreational amenities and community facilities, it would be a more marketable piece of property," the study noted.
The Pentagon eventually reversed course, and the area slated for closure stayed open.
Since then, the city has not conducted a new study of alternative uses for MacDill.
Tampa developer Al Austin, a member of the state panel charged with keeping Florida's 21 military installations open, insists it is bad strategy to discuss alternatives to redeveloping MacDill while the Pentagon reviews which bases to close.
"That was a stupid study," Austin said. "It was flawed then, and it is flawed now."
Austin said MacDill is only 4 feet above sea level and would need tons of dirt as filler to guard against flooding. He also said base infrastructure could not sustain redevelopment, and characterized the potential for traffic congestion as "a nightmare."
To address the traffic issue, the study looked at ideas such as widening Dale Mabry Highway and eliminating the toll on the Crosstown Expressway west of Willow Avenue. Eliminating the toll at Willow would reduce traffic on Bayshore Boulevard by 50 percent, the study said, based on a survey of MacDill personnel.
Austin said it would be a bad idea for the city to conduct a new study of alternative uses for MacDill because it would send the wrong signal to members of the base-closing panel.
Mayor Pam Iorio sided with Austin. "I don't think it's appropriate to consider alternative uses for MacDill. We only want one use," she said.
The mayor said she had not read the study, but dismissed it as no longer relevant.
"A lot of times these kinds of reports don't really mean anything," Iorio said. "This is not even the same community, 13 years later."
Not everyone agrees.
Former Mayor Sandy Freedman, who ordered the 1992 study, said the city has to be prepared. "Obviously, you don't want to think about the what if's," she said. "But it's unrealistic not to be considering the alternatives - if there was a closure."
Last month, former U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons urged the Tampa City Council to plan for the day MacDill closed. He noted that nothing is permanent in the military.
In an interview, Gibbons said city officials should welcome debate on the subject. "I don't think it's a good policy not to have an alternative plan," he said. "I don't think it's a good way to govern, getting caught by surprise."
In 1992 the part of MacDill scheduled to be closed was on the west side of the base and largely vacant, save for the runway, which is one of the nation's longest airstrips.
Under that plan, the U.S. Central Command and the U.S. Special Operations Command would remain on the east side of the base. Today, the Central Command is the nerve center of the war in Iraq. The Special Operations Command oversees the nation's super-secret commando units.
Freedman agreed with Austin that it would be expensive to redevelop MacDill. She cited such costs as cleanup of contamination and removing the runway. But Freedman also noted the boom in housing construction in south Tampa. "The viability of the land," she said, "has increased."
Bob Buckhorn, special assistant to Freedman during her tenure, chaired the study.
In an interview, the former councilman acknowledged it would be expensive to redevelop MacDill. In 1992, for example, he said it would have cost $71-million to fill MacDill with dirt. He added that banks would be wary of funding projects on land with a history of contamination.
And he pointed to the psychological factor: The study said getting people to live on land once declared contaminated could be problematic, although today 1,500 members of military families live on base.
Buckhorn said the city should not rely on Austin's political contacts in Washington to safeguard MacDill against closure. Austin is one of President Bush's biggest political fundraisers and is friends with Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, chairman of the Subcommittee on Defense Appropriations.
"The reality is we have to be prepared, either way," Buckhorn said. "Ignoring the doomsday scenario doesn't do this community any justice."
For the bay area, the stakes in the latest base-closing sweepstakes are enormous.
According to MacDill, the base's annual economic impact is about $6-billion. About 7,000 military and civilian personnel work on the base, making it one of the region's top four employers. MacDill also helps support more than 105,000 spinoff jobs.
Austin said he was heartened by recent remarks by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the Pentagon did not plan to target as many bases for closure as originally planned, although all 425 domestic bases are under scrutiny.